Why is Northern Ireland’s government in the news?
Northern Ireland assembly elections took place on 5 May 2022. Northern Ireland has special power-sharing arrangements that require the largest political parties from both communities – unionist and nationalist – to be in government.
The nationalist party, Sinn Féin, won the most seats in the assembly for the first time and are therefore entitled to the position of first minister. However, until January 2024, the DUP, the largest unionist party, said that it would not nominate a deputy first minister unless there were significant changes to the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol – the part of the Brexit deal that creates special trading arrangements for Northern Ireland – over which the former first minister, Paul Givan, resigned in February 2022.
Between May 2022 and January 2024 the Northern Ireland Assembly convened seven times but failed to nominate a Speaker or Deputy Speaker without the support of the DUP. This in effect prevented the timetable for executive formation from progressing.
In December 2023 the UK government publicly stated that talks over Northern Ireland Executive formation concluded and left a £3.3bn financial package on offer. Later in January 2024, and following further talks, the DUP party executive met to agree they would re-enter power sharing arrangements. With the UK government publishing its offer in the Safeguarding the Union Command Paper, Parliament is now expected to pass new legislation to implement the deal including legislation to affirm Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, to guarantee access to the UK internal market, to future-proof the operation of the UK internal market and to amend section 7A of the UK Withdrawal Act to reflect the Stormont Brake and democratic consent mechanisms. Subject to the passage of relevant legislation it is expected that the Northern Ireland Assembly will be recalled, and eventually a new executive may be nominated.
How does government in Northern Ireland work?
Northern Ireland has power-sharing institutions, as established under the Good Friday Agreement, which have responsibility for transferred matters including health, social care, housing, education, justice and policing and social security. Its unique governance arrangements are designed to protect the rights of both communities.
Members of the Northern Ireland assembly (MLAs) are elected using the proportional single transferable vote system. MLAs must then designate themselves as either ‘unionists’, ‘nationalist’ or ‘other’.
The Northern Ireland executive is drawn from the assembly and consists of a first minister and deputy first minister and eight ministers, who oversee departments as set out in law. Despite their titles, the first minister and deputy first minister have the same powers and jointly oversee the executive committee comprised of other ministers. They are required to come from different political designations, and so Northern Ireland’s governance arrangements can be described as a mandatory coalition.
How are the first minister and deputy first minister appointed?
The Northern Ireland Act 1998 states that 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. 7 Northern Ireland Act 1998 c. 47 s 16A(4)-(5)
However, there is a caveat in the legislation that states that if the largest party is not from the largest designation, then that party will still be entitled to nominate a first minister, and the largest party from the largest designation is entitled to nominate the deputy first minister. 8 Northern Ireland Act 1998 c. 47 s 16C(6) This creates a situation where the first minister need not come from the largest (or even second largest) designation, but the deputy first minister must do so, potentially making it more difficult for a party from the ‘other’ designation, like the Alliance Party, to become deputy first minster.
For example, in scenario 1, the DUP is the largest party in the largest designation (unionist) and therefore is entitled to the position of first minister. The second-largest designation is nationalist so Sinn Féin being the largest party in that designation is entitled to the position of deputy first minister. The Alliance Party, despite having more seats would not be entitled to the deputy first minister position because ‘other’ is not the second-largest designation.
In scenario 2, the largest party, Alliance, is not from the largest designation but is still entitled to the position of first minister. Sinn Féin as the largest party from the largest designation (nationalist) is entitled to deputy first minister.
|Sinn Féin (nationalist)
|Deputy first minister
Entitled parties nominate an MLA for their respective positions. If that person does not take up office, a further nomination may be made.
How are other ministers appointed to the Northern Ireland executive?
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 such as health are chosen late and often go to the smaller parties. Parties can decline to nominate a person for a ministerial position and instead join the official opposition, as the SDLP and UUP did in 2016.
What happens after an assembly election?
Following an election, the Northern Ireland assembly is required to meet within eight days (excluding bank holidays). The assembly’s first job is to elect a speaker and deputy speaker but a cross-community vote (50% of MLAs and 50% of nationalists and unionists or 60% of MLAs and 40% of nationalists and unionists). If they fail to do so, the assembly’s business cannot proceed any further.
From the date of the first meeting of the assembly, the parties have up to 24 weeks – comprised of an initial six-week period that can be renewed three times – to nominate a first minister and deputy first minister. However, the assembly can votes on a cross-community basis (50% of MLAs and 50% of nationalists and unionists or 60% of MLAs and 40% of nationalist and unionist) not to renew each six-week period.
If a first minister and deputy first minister are appointed within the 24-week period, other ministerial positions will then be allocated. But if no first minister or deputy first minister are appointed within this period, all ministers (in post as caretakers) will cease to hold office and the secretary of state for Northern Ireland is obliged to call another election. However, after the 2017 assembly election, the UK parliament repeatedly passed legislation delaying a further election whilst multi-party talks on re-establishing the executive have continued.
Usually, the first minister and deputy first minister prior to the election will continue to hold office until the end of the 24-week period. However, as the first minister resigned in February 2022, this was not the case after the 2022 elections. Other ministers in the executive will remain in post (unless the secretary of state for Northern Ireland deems that there is insufficient cross-community representation) during the period for executive formation.
The Northern Ireland Secretary is compelled to call a fresh election if the Northern Ireland Executive is not appointed. In practice, this deadline has been repeatedly pushed back since through legislation passed by the UK government. Following the elapse of the most recent deadline of 23:59 on 18 January, new legislation was passed to extend the deadline for Northern Ireland Executive formation to 8 February 2024.
What happens if the first minister or deputy first minister resigns?
If either the first minister or the deputy first minister resigns, the other ceases to hold office. Like after an election, the parties then have up to 24 weeks to nominate a new first minister and deputy first minister, unless the assembly vote not to renew the period.
The resignation of the first minister still causes the deputy first minister to cease to hold office, but the changes will also allow ministers to continue to hold office for up 48 weeks after the first minister or deputy first minister resigns.
What does having no ministers mean for the functioning of government in Northern Ireland?
The executive has collapsed several times, with the longest period lasting five years between 2002 and 2007. Previously, during many of these periods the UK government has suspended devolution and imposed direct rule from Westminster. However, during the most recent collapse in 2017, it did not do so, instead, allowing devolved government to continue without ministers in post.
However, following the May 2022 elections with no speaker in place at the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Northern Ireland Executive was unable to form meaning senior civil servants were responsible for day-to-day running of government.