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Northern Ireland: restoration of the power-sharing executive

In January 2020, the Northern Ireland Assembly nominated a new Northern Ireland executive, ending the three-year deadlock.

Following the signing of the New Decade, New Approach agreement in January 2020, the Northern Ireland Assembly nominated a new Northern Ireland executive, ending the three-year deadlock caused when Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister in January 2017.

All political parties entitled to join the restored Northern Ireland government opted to do so, creating a new five-party executive. The membership of the new executive is as follows:

  • First minister: Arlene Foster, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)
  • Deputy first Minister: Michelle O'Neill, Sinn Féin
  • Justice minister: Naomi Long, Alliance Party
  • Minister for the economy: Diane Dodds, DUP
  • Minister for finance: Conor Murphy, Sinn Féin
  • Minister for education: Peter Weir, DUP
  • Minister for communities: Deirdre Hargey, Sinn Féin
  • Minister for infrastructure: Nichola Mallon, Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP)
  • Minister for health: Robin Swann, Ulster Unionist Party (UUP)
  • Minister for agriculture: Edwin Poots, DUP

How are ministerial positions in the Northern Ireland executive allocated?

The largest party in the largest community designation in the Assembly is automatically entitled to the position of first minister, and the largest party in the second largest community designation is entitled to the position of deputy first minister. The first minister and deputy first ministers have broadly equal powers, and jointly oversee the executive committee comprised of other ministers.

Most other ministerial positions are allocated to political parties according to party strength in the Assembly using the d’Hondt system – where a mathematical formula allocates both the number of executive posts to which a party is entitled and the order in which they choose their portfolio. This can mean that some of the most troublesome portfolios are chosen late. Parties can decline to nominate a person for a ministerial position and instead join the official opposition. On this occasion, however, all parties have chosen to go into government.

The exception to this process is the position of justice minister, a post which has to be voted in with cross-community support. In this case, the cross-community Alliance Party leader, Naomi Long, has become justice minister.

What was the basis for restoring the executive?

Following the fifth round of negotiations, the parties reached an agreement on a deal which would form the basis for a restored executive going forward. The agreement, New Decade, New Approach[1] was published jointly by the secretary of state for Northern Ireland and the Irish tánaiste (deputy prime minister).

The agreement contains a range of detailed policy measures to restore public services and associated funding commitments, and to boost the economy in Northern Ireland. There are also important provisions dealing with security, the difficult issue of the Irish language – which was one of the catalysts for the collapse of the executive – and dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.  

But there are also a range of specific proposals designed to improve the sustainability of the executive, which has collapsed multiple times since the establishment of power-sharing after the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement in 1999. There are other measures to improve the quality of policy making and to put ministerial–civil service relations onto a more secure basis in the light of the inquiry into the abuse of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, which is due to report its findings later in the year.

Other proposals are aimed at addressing some of the long-standing weaknesses in Northern Ireland’s unique system of government. There are also specific commitments on how the government will approach the question of Northern Ireland and Brexit. Details are set out below.

 

Strand

Proposals

Rationale

Executive formation    
1) Transparency, accountability and the functioning of the executive

Strengthening of ministerial, special adviser and civil service codes, with emphasis on transparency and formality on meeting recording.

New civil service obligation to serve the executive as a whole.

Strengthened protection for whistle-blowers.

Enforcement through commissioners for ministerial standards.

Strengthening of the Assembly Committee on Standards and Privileges.

These measures are designed to address the concerns about the standard of decision-making and the ad hoc relations between ministers, advisers and civil servants that emerged in evidence to the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry.
2) Petition of concern

The petition of concern should only be used “in the most exceptional circumstances and as a last resort”; specific reforms include that they cannot be used on matters relating to members conduct, they must be triggered by two or more parties, and the introduction of a 14-day period of consideration before any vote takes place.

The petition of concern is a mechanism through which 30 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) can require that an Assembly decision has cross-community support (Either 50% of total MLAs and 50% of unionists and nationalist, or 60% of total MLAs and 40% of unionists and nationalists). 

It was designed to protect minority rights. However, the use of petitions of concern had been rising as both the DUP and Sinn Féin used them simply to veto policy proposals they did not support. These proposals are designed to address the overuse of petitions of concern and restore them to their original purpose.

3) Sustainability of the institutions

A new Code of Conduct of Executive business.

A Party Leaders Forum will be established and will meet monthly.

More resources for the Official Opposition.

Reform of the Civil Advisory panel, commission one to two issues for engagement a year including one Citizens’ Assembly a year.

Extend the period for executive formation to six weeks and place a duty on the secretary of state to call an election if there is no executive for 24 weeks.

Allow ministers to remain in office for up to 24 weeks after an election, or 48 weeks after executive collapse, with more limited functions and decision-making ability.

Allow Assembly committees to continue to function even if there is no executive.

These reforms are designed to improve the functioning of the executive by creating new mechanisms for engagement and accountability with other political parties, wider civil society and the public. They are intended to address some of the concerns smaller parties had about the functioning of the executive.

These proposals are designed to prevent a repeat of the situation in which Northern Ireland is left without ministers. It allows more time for parties to come to an agreement on entering government but allow ministers to temporarily stay in post so that ministerial decision making can continue. It also allows for Assembly committees to continue to scrutinise government in the absence of an executive.

4) Programme for Government

An outcomes-based wellbeing approach to government based on objective need, monitored by an Assembly committee. It outlines a list of strategies it will put in place and requires that parties publish a comprehensive timetable for delivering these within three months.

Multi-year budgets with investment based on objective need.

The executive will adopt a twin-track approach, using the existing plans in the first year to address pressing issues while also developing a longer-term Programme for Government.

These measures are designed to help the executive address long-term policy issues, aided by longer-term budgeting.

The parties will continue with the outcomes-based approach first adopted in 2016, using objective criteria to drive investment decisions to ensure an equitable distribution between communities.

5) Rights language and identity

Establish a new framework on culture and identity and an Office of Identity and Cultural Expression with a commissioner for Irish language and a commissioner to promote culture related to Ulster Scots/Ulster British tradition.

Legislation will amend the Northern Ireland Act, including legislation on the Irish language and to establish the arrangements outlined in the agreement.

Establish an ad-hoc committee, advised by an expert panel to consider the creation of a bill of rights.

Issues around an Irish Language Act had been the main stumbling block in the talks. The agreement will establish arrangements for to promote the Irish language and Ulster Scot traditions as a compromise.

This commitment is designed to make progress towards a Bill of Rights, first required in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement 1998.

6) Agreement review and monitoring Quarterly implementation review meetings, including Northern Ireland party leaders. Quarterly updates on progress will also be published. This measure is to ensure that the commitments in such an agreement are credible and will be put in place. Significant elements of previous agreements have never been implemented.
Brexit

Establishes a Brexit sub-committee to be chaired by the first minster and deputy first minister, scrutinised by an Assembly committee.

Brexit will be the first priority of a new executive, who will work to secure an outcome based on the joint letter from August 2016.

Northern Ireland representation on joint committee and specialised committees on NI specific issues which are also being attended by Irish government.

UK will legislate for ‘unfettered access’ for NI businesses to the UK internal market.

Brexit, and issues around the Northern Ireland protocol, will be the most urgent issue facing the executive; the agreement will establish specific groups to consider issues immediately.

The UK also makes commitments to involve the executive in UK–EU discussions on implementing the protocol, and to put its commitment to preventing trade barriers in the Irish Sea in law. These were the subject of amendments by Northern Ireland MPs that were rejected in the House of Commons, so the government may table amendments in the Lords if the executive is restored. 

Commitments: UK government

Established a bi-annual Cabinet delegation with the Northern Ireland executive. The UK government will make six-month progress reports to Parliament on progress of petition of concern review.

Commitment to support and promote Northern Ireland trade.

Implementing the Stormont House Agreement within 100 days to address legacy issues, alongside measures to support veterans.

These measures are designed to support government in Northern Ireland and improve links with (and oversight by) UK government.

As part of its commitment to implementing existing agreements, the UK government will establish a Historical Investigations Unit into Troubles-related deaths. Such a body has been controversial among some Conservative MPs.

UK financial and economic commitments and conditions Additional funding in 2020/21 – including to bring nurses pay into line with rest of the UK and end pay dispute. Funding for transformation in public services, infrastructure, to implement Stormont House proposals on legacy and to support community and reconciliation initiatives.

Establish an independent fiscal council, and a UK government–NI executive joint board with oversight of spending on transformation and infrastructure.

The UK government has committed funding to help the executive address increasingly urgent issues in public services, which have been put under increasing strain – and gone unaddressed – during the last three years without government.

Funding is conditional on measures to ensure it is spent effectively, addressing existing concerns about that lack of a ‘value-for-money’ culture in the Northern Ireland administration.

Commitments: Irish government

Ensure constructive engagement from British Irish Council and North South Ministerial Council in the context of Brexit.

Improve connectivity in North–South.

Investment in North West and Border communities, particularly in preparation for Brexit. Commitments on language, culture and reconciliation.
The Irish government makes a number of commitments, particularly in relation to Brexit, to address the new challenges posed by the Northern Ireland Protocol.

 

How much money has the UK government committed under this agreement?

It is not clear exactly how much money the UK government has committed, although estimates put the amount at around £2 billion[2]; this could be substantial in NI budget terms.

The UK government is no longer making the payments that Theresa May’s government committed under the now-expired confidence and supply agreement with the DUP, and Northern Ireland would in any case stand to benefit from 'Barnett formula' consequentials when the new spending review concludes later this year. 

Is restored government in Northern Ireland secure?

The stability of the Northern Ireland executive is not guaranteed; there are some controversial issues to deal with further down the line. The UK government now needs to act on inquiries into Troubles-era killings which is controversial in Westminster and the report of the RHI inquiry, the scandal which triggered the downfall of the executive in 2017, is still outstanding. It is likely to contain harsh criticisms of decision-making and behaviour in the last executive, including the first minister, and there are difficult negotiations and decisions to be made on Brexit.

But the parties will feel pressure from the electorate to make devolved government work and to start dealing with the big list of outstanding issues.


United Kingdom
Northern Ireland
Devolved administration
Northern Ireland executive
Publisher
Institute for Government

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