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 Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 10:45, 6 Gorffennaf 2021

I turn first to the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for North Down. As I have stated previously, the purpose of the Bill and the reason why we are in Committee today is to legislate for commitments made to support the institutions and to improve sustainability under the New Decade, New Approach deal. I commend the hon. Gentleman on his creativity in seeking to reform the mechanism through which to nominate a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister, but it is not something that I can support because it has not been agreed by the parties.

Of course, I know that the hon. Gentleman’s party may be looking at the polls and at the possibility of making gains in the next election, but it would not be appropriate for the UK Government to alter unilaterally the principles of power sharing so carefully negotiated as part of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and later by the St Andrews agreement.

The new clause could have an adverse impact on the make-up of the Executive should the First and Deputy First Ministers arise from the same designation. If both the largest and the second largest parties were from the same designation, the Executive could not command cross-community support within the Assembly, which would lead to the instability of the political institutions in Northern Ireland. That is precisely what the Bill aims to avoid. I recognise that the hon. Gentleman might wish the issue to be addressed at another time. As our previous Speaker used to say regularly, that is a bridge that we might have to cross when we come to it, but we do not have any mandate to address it in this particular piece of legislation.

The hon. Member for Belfast South is looking to return the situation to how it stood before the St Andrews agreement. Her party has championed that position consistently. It is worthwhile for her to consider what power sharing should look like in the future, in particular as the political landscape in Northern Ireland evolves. That conversation might need to be had, but it would not be right for this Parliament to reverse unilaterally the approach agreed at St Andrews.

To reiterate a point that I have made previously, the purpose of the Bill is to legislate for commitments made under the NDNA deal. The Belfast/Good Friday agreement has continued to be built on since its historic agreement in 1998 through periods of political difficulty, resulting in the deal that we legislate for today—itself built on agreements such as St Andrews, which the hon. Lady is looking to reverse with her new clause.

The history of devolution in Northern Ireland has shown that the communities and politics are changing continually. Shortly after the Good Friday agreement was reached, there was a prolonged suspension of the institutions between 2002 and 2007. The period of suspension was longer than the institutions had been functioning following the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

Devolution was restored in 2007, following the St Andrews agreement, which the hon. Lady wishes to reverse. That historic agreement led to a 10-year period of political continuity, between 2007 and 2017. As I stated, it would not be right for this Parliament to reverse unilaterally the approach agreed at St Andrews. I therefore urge that both the motions be withdrawn.