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 Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party, Belfast South 10:45, 6 Gorffennaf 2021

The previous amendments to the Bill tabled by SDLP Members were probably probing amendments, but we believe that new clause 3 is fundamental and fairly existential for the Assembly. It is worth saying that for the last 20 years the SDLP has advocated adherence to the Good Friday agreement and the mechanisms and safeguards designed in good faith during that process.

The reason why we have protected some of the changes that happened at St Andrews is that the agreement was designed in good faith and endorsed by a very large number of the people north and south. Subsequent changes have been made by politicians and for politicians in their own interests, frankly—and, we believe, over the heads and to the detriment of the electorate.

The joint election of First Ministers was a centrepiece of strand 1. In recent months, we have heard much debate about the concept of parallel consent, but this is really the clearest example of parallel consent as designed in the Good Friday agreement. In theory and in practice, in those early years the First Ministers would have been jointly elected by all the Assembly Members and in practice by a majority in total and a majority of each designation at the time.

The current distorted process, arrived at at St Andrews, has essentially privatised the election to the two larger parties. That was done to spare the blushes of those parties so that they did not have to endorse one another in the voting lobbies, but that has had knock-on effects on the joint character of the office. Leadership comes from the top, and that has an effect on the character of the Assembly and of political conversation more widely. The current process has also undermined the accountability mechanisms that had been designed for the Assembly and removed the primacy of the Assembly as an authority to hold Ministers to account.

The flaws in that approach become very clear in December 2016, when the Assembly was limited in its ability to hold to account Ministers who had presided over a substantial and fairly catastrophic example of poor governance. Restoring that joint election, as we have outlined in new clause 3, would restore some primacy to the Assembly as the key source of devolved authority. It would also facilitate the cross-party working and cross-party mandates, allegiances and alliances envisaged in 1998.

The St Andrews in this Bill is about sustainability and the new clause is very much in that spirit. The St Andrews change has also facilitated the ransom tactics that we saw most acutely in the 2017-to-2020 stand-off, but that we have also seen in recent weeks as well. The fact that the nominations are private decisions for those parties allows them to withhold a First Minister and therefore to withhold an Assembly. That prevents any potential emergence of a coalition of the willing, as might have come forward in the last three-year stand-off of MLAs from all parties. They wanted to get on with the job to which they were elected but, because of the privatisation of the First Minister’s nomination, had essentially been relegated to being bystanders and commentators with no power to implement a different mandate.

That change at St Andrews also has a ground-level impact, in that it has allowed parties to make every Assembly election a first-past-the-post race to be top dog. It effectively makes Assembly elections into many border polls; we have to race to become them’uns or us’uns as the biggest party and get the top job. That has sucked oxygen away from every other issue and prevented the emergence of a politics and discourse more about the everyday issues that affect people here.

Our new clause seeks to address those issues and would also formalise the joint and coequal nature of the offices in removing the word “Deputy”; the reality is that one First Minister cannot order paperclips without the say-so of the other First Minister. The “Deputy” and “First” mechanism undermines the joint nature of that office. The new clause is in the wider interests of this Bill, which is about sustainability, and would head off any potential existential crisis following a future election if the few hundred votes that separate those parties were to change and people in one were anxious about being deputy to the other.

The mechanisms that we have outlined would also go some way to address the issues discussed by the hon. Member for North Down and for which the SDLP has much sympathy. The designation system was designed and is in place to manage the traditional divides and the two communities, as was, and as has been spoken about, but it is a fair point that it is entrenching those communities, in which people are separated and divided out on that basis.

The mechanism that we have outlined in our new clause designs in other potential ways to ensure that the First Ministers have the support of sufficient numbers of the Assembly, through either majorities of each designation or, in essence, a form of qualified majority voting that would in practice ensure that those First Ministers were acceptable to different sides of the communities—different potential identities, but without negating the role and the vote of those who designate as others, which is a perfectly rational way to designate, whatever the constitutional outlook.