The Role of the Speaker
The Speaker is the Presiding Officer (Chairperson) of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Speaker’s most visible role is chairing plenary meetings in the Assembly Chamber. Outside the Chamber, the Speaker also chairs:
- the Business Committee, which decides what business will be discussed in the Chamber; and
- the Assembly Commission, which is responsible for ensuring that the Assembly has the accommodation, staff and services it needs to carry out its work.
After an Assembly election, the first task for MLAs is to choose a Speaker and the decision requires cross-community support. No other business can be conducted until the Speaker is elected. In carrying out this important role, the Speaker must be politically neutral. The Speaker does not take part in, or vote in debates, or become involved in party politics.
The Speaker also has a representation role, almost like an ambassador. He will receive VIP visitors to Parliament Buildings, host events to encourage the public to visit and attend external events on behalf of the Assembly.
The Assembly and Executive must work together to ensure that the legislation required to implement the Executive's Programme for Government, which has been approved by the Assembly, can be properly considered by the Assembly. The Speaker must enable Ministers to get their business onto the Assembly's agenda, while also ensuring that the Assembly has sufficient opportunity for debate and scrutiny, in order to hold Ministers to account.
Between January 2020 and March 2022 Speaker Alex Maskey MLA played a leading role in bringing about changes to the way the Assembly carries out its business in order to increase the Assembly's effectiveness as a scrutiny body. He ensured that MLAs had inreased support when introducing their own legislative proposals, called Private Members' Bills. He proposed a new way for MLAs to raise current issues of concern in the Chamber, called 'Members' Statements'. When the Assembly was dealing with a large amount of legislation towards the end of the mandate, the Speaker, in his role as Chair of the Business Committee, worked with Party Whips to ensure that as much legislation as possible would be passed before dissolution. Extra sittings of the Assembly took place to accommodate this. Speaker Maskey also asked the Procedures Committee to consider the issue of electronic voting (to replace the traditional, division method). Any change to the rules regardings procedures must be approved a vote in the Chamber, with cross-community support.