The Chair And The Mace

The British House of Commons gifted the Mace, the symbol of authority of Parliament, to the Ceylon House of Representatives in 1949. It weighs 28 pounds and measures 48 inches in length. The Mace is composed of a staff of ebony with ornamentation in silver, 18 - Carat gold and blue sapphires. The Mace has remained the symbol of authority of Parliament and through Parliament, of the Speaker and as such Parliament cannot sit without the Mace. The Speaker enters and leaves the Chamber preceded by the Sergeant-at-Arms carrying the Mace, the Secretary General and his/her deputies. While Parliament is in session the Sergeant-at-Arms places the Mace on the bracket provided for the purpose immediately below the table of the Secretary General of Parliament. (Courtesy: Parliament of Sri Lanka website)

Vishavanath

‘Though inanimate, the Chair and the Mace represent something living …’

There seems to be no end in sight to the prevailing political crisis, which is eating into the vitals of our society. Bitter acrimony and thirst for power continue to frustrate attempts to resolve it. Developments on the political front have put the Speaker and the Mace centre stage, as never before. They have become the cynosure of all eyes.

The Speaker usually maintains a low profile and his bailiwick is widely thought to be confined to Parliament and its precincts. He is often overshadowed by the Executive President, the Prime Minister and even politically active prominent ministers. But this cannot be said of the incumbent Speaker who has taken on both the President and the Prime Minister and is standing his ground in the face of a hostile campaign by the government ranks. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, acting as a countervailing force against both Executive President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, has caused the role of the Speaker to be redefined.

Some unruly government MPs were seen toppling the Speaker’s chair, dragging it and pouring some liquid thereon, during a recent brawl in the House. The Sergeant-at-Arms had a hard time protecting the Mace from protesting MPs. The commotion in Parliament was shown on television much to the consternation of the public concerned about the country’s democratic wellbeing.  Not many, however, may have realised the significance of those two symbols of authority.

Sri Lanka’s Parliament was moved to Sri Jayewardenepura, Kotte in 1983
Sri Lanka’s Parliament was moved to Sri Jayewardenepura, Kotte in 1983

Evolution of the post of Speaker

It is generally thought that the post of Speaker is as old as the British Parliament itself, though Thomas Hungerford became the first known Speaker in 1377. The institution of speaker in this country was created by the Ceylon Legislative Council Order of 1923 as an elected Vice President, following a resolution moved by the Ceylon National Congress President James Pieris in 1921. Before that the Council had functioned under the chairmanship of the Governor.

The Donoughmore Commission further strengthened the post of Speaker by limiting the role played by the Governor as the President of Council to special or formal occasions. Procedures of the Speaker were specified in the Standing Orders of the State Council (1931) and some political observers argue that that institution of Speaker in its current form came into existence in 1931.

The Soulbury Constitution (1947-1972) provided for the election of the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker and the Deputy Chairman of Committees in the House of Representatives. Francis Mollamure (UNP) became the Speaker in 1947. Sir Ivor Jennings, who was responsible for drafting the first Constitution sought to vest more powers in the post of Speaker in line with the Westminster traditions and practices. He held that the Speaker or the Deputy Speaker could be questioned only by the House and that, too, on a substantive motion.

Political leaders initially tried to ensure that the Speaker was elected unanimously so as to promote his neutrality. But partisan politics got the better of them with the passage of time. The election of the Speaker of the second State Council became a political battle between the Ceylon National Congress, which nominated Francis de Zoysa and the Sinhala Maha Sabha, which together with the Lanka Samasamaja Party (LSSP) backed W. Duraiswamy from Kayts. Duraiswamy won in 1936 and his election stood S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike in good stead in that the Ceylon National Congress, reeling from its defeat, had to accommodate him.

This is the present Speaker’s Chair, with its traditional and ornamental design, that is in use since 1978, following the adoption of the new Constitution of the Sri Lanka that year. (Courtesy: Parliament of Sri Lanka website)
This is the present Speaker’s Chair, with its traditional and ornamental design, that is in use since 1978, following the adoption of the new Constitution of the Sri Lanka that year. (Courtesy: Parliament of Sri Lanka website)

Triumph of Opposition candidates

There have been occasions when the Opposition succeeded in using the election of the Speaker to flex muscles and instill a sense of insecurity into the ruling party from the word go. What happened in 1960 March is a case in point. The SLFP-led Opposition nominated T. B. Subasingha against the UNP’s nominee Sir Albert Pieris. Subasinghe won and his election served as a motion of no-confidence against the UNP’s minority government.

In 2000, Anura Bandaranaike was elected Speaker unanimously because his elder sister President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga wanted him elevated to that position though he represented the UNP. It was a rare moment of unity between the ruling party and the Opposition.

In 2004, Parliament was thrown into turmoil when the Speaker was elected. The newly elected UPFA government of President Kumaratunga nominated Communist Party General Secretary D. E. W. Gunasekera against the UNP nominee W. J. M. Lokubandra. For the first time in the country’s parliamentary history, three ballots had to be taken to elect the Speaker.  The first ballot ended in a tie and the second one was annulled as some overenthusiastic UNP MPs showed their marked ballot papers to their party seniors in violation of the Standing Orders. The third ballot was taken and Lokubandara received 110 votes as opposed to Gunasekera’s 109 and became the Speaker. His victory was due to the votes cast for him by two Jathika Hela Urumaya monks in the House. In the melee that ensued, some irate ruling party MPs set upon the JHU monks, causing one of them to receive treatment in hospital.

The election of Lokubandara served as an expression of no-confidence in the government with a razor thin majority, but the UNP failed to make the most of the situation. Following the election of President Rajapaksa in 2005, 18 UNP MPs led by Karu Jayasuriya, joined the SLFP-led government, pledging their support for its war effort. Jayasuriya, however, returned to the UNP’s fold before the end of the war and is today defending the UNP to the hilt against President Sirisena. It may be that he is trying to make amends for the severe damage he inflicted on the party. Lokubandara, currently a provincial Governor, has switched his allegiance to the SLFP. He has come forward to defend President Sirisena’s executive actions which Speaker Jayasuriya has refused to accept.

speakers

Speakers embroiled in controversy

Incumbent Speaker Jayasuriya is at the centre of controversy, having pitted himself against the Executive. This situation is not without precedents, though. In 1964, the then Speaker Hugh Fernando incurred the wrath of the government by ruling in favour of the Opposition as regards the Ceylon Press Bill, which originated in the Senate and was tabled in the House on 06 October; the government wanted the second reading the following day itself.

The Opposition insisted that it needed time and demanded that the Bill be taken up for second reading on 02 Feb. in 1965. Speaker Fernando held that the notice given by the Opposition was in order, much to the consternation of the government, which accused him of being partisan. Adding insult to injury, he put paid to an attempt by the government to move a motion seeking a reversal of his order. He ruled that the motion aimed at reviewing a ruling from the Chair and, therefore, violated the Standing Orders.

In 1973, Speaker Stanley Tilakeratne caused quite a stir with his rulings on the Sri Lanka Press Council Bill.  The Republican Constitution created the Constitutional Court (CC) to determine constitutionality or otherwise of Bills presented to the National State Assembly (NSA). The CC was required to give its ruling within two weeks. In the case of the aforesaid Bill, challenged before the CC, two weeks lapsed and the government sought to proceed with it. The Speaker allowed it to do so, prompting the Opposition to take up procedural issues. The CC members resigned and new appointments had to be made. Thereafter, Tilakeratne after examining all submissions held that the further course of the Bill had to wait until the newly constituted CC, which was examining it, gave a verdict. The government members were so incensed that they threatened to move a no-faith motion against him, but it did not come to pass as the proponents of it could not enlist the support of the other constituents of the United Front coalition.

In 1980, Speaker Bakeer Marker (UNP) succumbed to the dictates of the party leadership and accepted Abeyratne Pilapitiya as an appointed MP though the latter had purposely lost his parliamentary seat by skipping parliament sessions for three months without leave. Pilapitiya had done so because he knew he would be unseated owing to an election petition and was wary of contesting a by-election. The Speaker’s decision led to a crisis, in that, Kalawana was a single-member constituency and there would be no room for the member to be elected at the by-election as Pilapitiya had been appointed as an MP. President J. R. Jayewardene with a five-sixth majority in the House refused to give in. He had a constitutional amendment moved to make Kalawana a two-member seat so that both Pilaptiya and Sarath Muttetuwegama, who won the by-election could be accommodated in Parliament.

These are trying times for Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. With the appointed government walking out of parliamentary sessions and being disruptive, Speaker Jayasuriya’s attempts to assert Parliaments role in accordance with the Constitution has been hailed by many as heroic.
These are trying times for Speaker Karu Jayasuriya. With the appointed government walking out of parliamentary sessions and being disruptive, Speaker Jayasuriya’s attempts to assert Parliaments role in accordance with the Constitution has been hailed by many as heroic.

The Supreme Court, which examined the amendment, held that since it involved the people’s franchise, it had to be approved by the people at a referendum besides being passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament.  JRJ got the amendment passed in the House, but baulked at holding a referendum lest he should lose. The government did not proceed beyond that point and Pilapitiya was asked to resign. The Opposition moved a motion of no confidence against Speaker Marker before the by-election but did not want it to be taken up for debate until after the electoral contest. The UNP got it moved and seconded by two of its MPs defeated it!

M. H. Mohamed also had his image tarnished as a Speaker because of the manner in which he handled an impeachment motion against President Ranasinghe Premadasa in August 1991. A group of MPs led by Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake and G. M. Premachandra submitted the impeachment motion to Speaker Mohamed, who duly accepted it. But he did not place it on the Order Paper, claiming that he had to check the authenticity of the signatures thereon. President Premadasa prorogued Parliament and did everything in his power to make some of the MPs who had signed the motion to withdraw their signatures. He succeeded in his endeavor and the MPs who sided with him were made State Ministers. The Opposition claimed that some of the MPs who had signed the motion had been bought off. The impeachment motion died a natural death, but the UNP suffered a debilitating split with a group of its prominent members including Lalith, Gamini and Premachandra breaking away and forming a new party, the Democratic United National Front (DUNF). The abortive impeachment bid marked the beginning of the end of the 17-long-year UNP rule.

In 2001, Speaker Anura Bandaranaike gave a historic ruling from the Chair when the Supreme Court ordered that Parliament suspend the appointment of a Select Committee to probe the conduct of the then Chief Justice. He declared that the Supreme Court had no jurisdiction to issue an interim injunction restraining the Speaker and he was not bound by the court order. His ruling was in line with the views expressed by Sir Ivor Jennings way back in 1947. Bandaranaike received plaudits for his decision.

Significance of Chair and Mace

The Speaker’s Chair and the Mace are revered in countries where democracy is cherished. Why they should be held in high esteem was explained by a member of the British parliamentary delegation which was here in to present the Chair and the Mace to the House of Representatives. Ralph Deraniyagala in ‘Presentation of mace and Speaker’s Chair to Ceylon House of Representatives’ (Journal of the Society of Clerks at the Table, 1950 quotes Chairman of the Committee of Ways and Means. Maj. J. Milner as having said in his speech in the House to mark the occasion:

A gift of the House of Commons of Great Britain to the Ceylon House of Representatives was presented on 11th January 1949. Under the concurrence of the His Majesty King George VI of Great Britain, a six member delegation headed by the Rt. Hon. Major Milner of the House of Commons visited Ceylon to the presentation ceremony. The chair was received by the Speaker Sir Francis Molamure. It is made from a part of pure English Oak beam of the House of Commons dislodged when it was partly destroyed by indiscriminate German bombing during World War II. It stands six feet high and it is carved in the design of leaves which are gilded. It is upholstered in deep maroon, and the Sinhala (Sehala) Lion with drawn sword is embossed in gold on the leather under the head of the chair. (Courtesy: Parliament of Sri Lanka website)
A gift of the House of Commons of Great Britain to the Ceylon House of Representatives was presented on 11th January 1949. Under the concurrence of the His Majesty King George VI of Great Britain, a six member delegation headed by the Rt. Hon. Major Milner of the House of Commons visited Ceylon to the presentation ceremony. The chair was received by the Speaker Sir Francis Molamure. It is made from a part of pure English Oak beam of the House of Commons dislodged when it was partly destroyed by indiscriminate German bombing during World War II. It stands six feet high and it is carved in the design of leaves which are gilded. It is upholstered in deep maroon, and the Sinhala (Sehala) Lion with drawn sword is embossed in gold on the leather under the head of the chair. (Courtesy: Parliament of Sri Lanka website)

“Mr. Speaker, the Chair and Mace are the symbols of principles fundamental to democratic institutions. Sir, the first essential of a democratic State is consideration for the toleration of the opinion of others. In that lies the importance of the Chair, which is the natural protector of minorities, the guardian of free speech and the outward and visible signs of fair play. The Chair embodies these essential safeguards of the democratic way of life … As we see the Mace before us in our daily work we are constantly reminded of two things. The first is that it is from the people, and the people alone, that we derive our powers and that those powers must be tempered by moderation, discretion and understanding. The second is the responsibility which rests upon us in our individual and in our corporate capacity as House to make democracy work. This is not easy, many countries have not even tried. Other have tried and failed, as we look around the world today there are countries where democracy flourishes, but the world is also littered with the memories of democracies which have fallen. They fell because they lacked the spiritual qualities which to you and to us are enshrined in the Chair and the Mace. Though inanimate, the Chair and the Mace represent something living, something vital without which your house or ours would wither and die.”

This short speech should be printed and distributed among the MPs who continue to desecrate the Chair and the Mace.

The old Parliament building now houses the Presidential Secretariat.
The old Parliament building now houses the Presidential Secretariat.

(Information contained in this article has been obtained from various sources including Prof. Wiswa Warnapala’s Parliament in Sri Lanka—A study of the working of Parliamentary Institutions in Sri Lanka, Hansard, Constitutions (1947, 1972 and 1978), British Parliament website, archives of newspapers and web publications and interviews with several veteran politicians.)
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