New Clause 2 - Appointment of First Minister and Deputy First Minister

Part of Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 10:45 am ar 6 Gorffennaf 2021.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down 10:45, 6 Gorffennaf 2021

The issue is essentially about being proactive and the Government and Parliament recognising changes in Northern Ireland, recognising where problems may well arise in the near future and acting to get ahead of those, as opposed to responding to what may well become a crisis in the future.

At present, there is a lot of concern about the precise approach to the determination of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland, which has been through quite a number of changes over the years. Obviously, new clause 3, tabled in the names of my friends in the SDLP, potentially takes us back to the original wording of the Good Friday agreement and the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which was of course changed by the St Andrews agreement and the subsequent legislation.

We now have a situation where, under law, the determination of First Minister and Deputy First Minister is closely linked to designations. In effect, at present, the largest party in the largest designation chooses the First Minister and the largest party in the second largest designation chooses the Deputy First Minister, with the proviso—slipped into the legislation in 2007—that when that does not apply to the largest party overall, that largest party takes the First Minister role.

This has become, shall we say, the focal point for a lot of polarisation—even more polarisation in what is already a polarised society—and has led to elections becoming focused around who will become the largest party, rather than recognising First Minister and Deputy First Minister as a joint office, and that in practice it does not matter terribly much which party has the First Minister and which has the Deputy First Minister. None the less, this is part of the narrative of our politics and acts to squeeze out the consideration of other issues during election time.

Beyond that, there is a specific issue. The system of appointing the First Minister and Deputy First Minister is very much linked to the designation system in the Assembly. We do not believe that that was ever legitimate, but it was put in in 1998. Not everyone in Northern Ireland is a Unionist or a nationalist, and not every elected representative is a Unionist or nationalist; people wanted to see themselves in a different light. The situation has changed dramatically over the past 20 years, both in terms of the number of elected representatives who do not identify as Unionist or nationalist, and—perhaps even more significantly—within the wider public. Our people, particularly our young people, have moved away from traditional labels.

It is important that our institutions keep up with the changes and evolution in society. We could see a situation in the near future where a party—I cannot think of one that springs to mind at present—may well emerge as one of the largest two political parties in Northern Ireland, but the current formation of the rules around the appointment of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and in particular the link to designations, would act to prevent that from happening. I think that would create a crisis of legitimacy, in terms of the political institutions.

New clause 2 is designed to reflect the changing demographics within Northern Ireland, to move away from the 1998 situation, in which perhaps only a small number of MLAs were neither Unionist nor nationalist, to what may be a very different situation after the next Assembly election. It would also avoid, therefore, what could become a major political crisis of legitimacy, in which the Government would have to intervene to rectify in due course—perhaps with some period of the institutions not being operational. That is why it is important that the Government are proactive: not in a massively speculative way, of course, but by dealing with realistic changes that may be just around the corner in Northern Ireland’s society.