As the Northern Ireland Assembly’s 2009-2010 session comes to a close, it can reflect on a year that brought successes and challenges. 2009-2010 was the year that the Assembly embedded itself firmly in the political life of Northern Ireland. History was made on the 12 April when powers for policing and justice were devolved to the Assembly.
Speaker of the Assembly, Mr William Hay, MLA said: “2009-2010 has been an historic session for the Assembly. Not only did MLAs pass the Justice Bill which agreed the establishment of the Department of Justice and paved the way for devolution of policing and justice, but 12 other Bills were also approved and will become law by receiving Royal Assent.”
The Assembly and its Committees have also undertaken a large programme of other important work this year. Assembly Committees’ job is to scrutinise the work of Government Departments and review and make recommendations for amendment to proposed Bills.
During this session, Assembly Committees published 35 reports as a result of their inquiries. Some of the most notable were the Agriculture Committee’s Inquiry into the Dioxins Contamination Incident in December 2008, the Health Committee’s Inquiry into Obesity and the Employment and Learning Committee’s Inquiry into Young People not in Employment, Education or Training (NEETs). Committees also held Ministers and departmental officials to account on the big issues like swine flu, credit unions and organised crime.
Although the primary function of the Assembly is to make laws, it is about much more than that. The Assembly is also committed to engaging with the people of Northern Ireland to help them understand how political life works and to encourage them to become part of it.
Speaker William Hay said: “The Commission and the entire Assembly want to bring people into Parliament Buildings so that they can see for themselves the work that we do here. We want everyone to feel that this is their building, their legislature and we—MLAs and those who work here—are doing our best for all the people of Northern Ireland.
“This year alone we hosted 1,700 visits with nearly 60,000 people participating. Each year more and more people come to Parliament Buildings and we want that number to grow even more next year.”
Throughout the year, Parliament Buildings and the Assembly hosted a large number of visits and events—everything from a joint visit by Lurgan Junior High and St. Mary’s High School to hosting the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton and a delegation of American investors.
This year the Assembly was out and about bringing its work to towns and cities throughout Northern Ireland with a series of Roadshows. The Speaker and MLAs from the area listened and responded to the concerns of local people and there was lively debate on everything from public transport to potholes. For the first time this year, the Assembly took part in the Balmoral Show, holding a range of events and Committee meetings that saw 3,000 people visit the Assembly stand.
As well as bringing the work of the Assembly to more people, the Assembly Commission, which oversees the running of the Assembly, has also been active in improving how he Assembly records and disseminates information. Changes to how MLAs’ expenses are recorded and published now make this information more accessible to the public.
Speaker William Hay MLA, who chairs the Assembly Commission said: “The Northern Ireland Assembly has always been committed to openness and transparency. This year we have taken a number of steps to really make that happen. This included providing more detail on how MLAs use the money which they receive to run their constituency offices and requiring them to register family members who benefit in any way from this money.”
All in all, 2009-2010 has seen much to celebrate in Parliament Buildings. During recess, although MLAs do not debate issues in the Assembly Chamber, they will be working in their constituencies and may attend Committee meetings as well. The Assembly itself is still open for business: visitors, tours and events will make Parliament Buildings a busy place this summer.
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