New Clause 3 - Pledge of Office by First Minister and Deputy First Minister

Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 16 July 2013.

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‘After section 16A(9) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, there shall be inserted—

“(9A) The First Minister and Deputy First Minister shall each make their pledge of office orally in full at a sitting of the Assembly.’.—(Mark Durkan.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Katy Clark Katy Clark Labour, North Ayrshire and Arran

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 4—Cross-community election of First Minister and Deputy First Minister —

‘In section 16A of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Appointment of First Minister, Deputy First Minister and Northern Ireland Ministers following Assembly election)—

(a) subsections (4) to (7) and (9) (which relate to the appointment of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister) shall cease to have effect;

(b) after subsection (3) there shall be inserted—

“(4) Each candidate for the office of First Minister or Deputy First Minister must stand for election jointly with a candidate for the other office.

(5) Two candidates standing jointly shall not be elected to the two offices without the support of a majority of the members voting in the election, a majority of the designated Nationalists voting and a majority of the designated Unionists voting.

(6) The First Minister and the Deputy First Minister—

(a) shall not take up office until each of them has affirmed the terms of the pledge of office; and

(b) subject to the provisions of this Part, shall hold office until the conclusion of the next election for First Minister and Deputy First Minister.”.

(c) in subsection (3)(b) the reference to subsections (4) to (7) shall be replaced by a reference to subsections (4) to (6).’.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

New clauses 3 and 4 relate to the position of First and Deputy First Minister in the Assembly. Although new clause 3 appears first on the amendment paper, I would first like to address new clause 4, which would simply restore the factory settings of the Good Friday agreement in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Good Friday agreement provided for the joint Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and provided that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister would be elected jointly.

As I understand it, when the Bill was going through Parliament, the shorthand for the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister became the jointlies, because of all the clumsy references to things that the First and Deputy First Minister acting jointly could or should do. Everything about the office was to be joint: their powers, their purposes and their nomination and election. That was a deliberate and important concept, not least when we were negotiating the agreement, particularly in Strand 1 under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen.

Some people had the idea of appointing an Executive by a system such as d’Hondt or Sainte-Lague, and we settled on d’Hondt. People wondered where the accountability would be if Ministers were appointed simply on the basis of their own party’s mandate, by their own party, without vetting or vetoing from anybody else. There was also the question of where the Assembly’s clout would come from in terms of overall accountability and authority. Those of us who came up with the idea of the joint Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister sought to answer that partly by ensuring that the First and Deputy First Minister would be elected by the Assembly on the basis of cross-community support, and would be nominated jointly.

That was hugely important and symbolic. It was not an idea that my party had particularly pursued or developed throughout the negotiations. To be quite honest, the idea of the joint office occurred to me on the back of the pictures of David Trimble and Seamus Mallon going to Poyntzpass after the murders of Philip Allen and Damien Trainor. We saw the leader of Unionism and the leader of nationalism almost literally standing together and binding the wounds of the community, only a month out from the agreement. My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen will remember the shocking impact of that double murder of two friends, Catholic and Protestant, whose friendship was a parable for the way Northern Ireland should be and could be.

The way that Seamus Mallon and David Trimble dealt with that—Poyntzpass was right on the border of their two constituencies—inspired the thinking that helped to answer the problems we were having in the talks about whether someone who gets the first appointment under d’Hondt should become First Minister and whether the post of Deputy First Minister should just go to the next party. In that case, there could be two Unionists or two nationalists, so there was a question of cross-community balance. There was also the question of cross-community support for voting. A number of issues and problems were resolved.

There was also the question of whether the First Minister would be responsible for co-ordinating the internal affairs of the Government of Northern Ireland and whether the Deputy First Minister would be responsible for co-ordinating external affairs and lateral relationships  north-south and east-west and with Europe and America, and so on. People were not sure how well that would work in practice, so the answer to everything was to go for joint office. It was hugely important that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister should be jointly elected by the Assembly.

During the long period of suspension after 2002, particularly following the Assembly elections that took place during suspension in 2003, the negotiations involving the two Governments, Sinn Fein and the DUP led to the idea that we could not have the First Minister and Deputy First Minister appointed by election in the same way unless we forced other parties to vote for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. In what was called the comprehensive agreement in December 2004 that was meant to involve Sinn Fein, the DUP and the two Governments but fell apart over sackcloth and ashes, the lack of photographs and all the rest of it, the proposal was that in future parties would only be able to appoint Ministers under the Good Friday agreement if they had first voted for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

Whereas the DUP was able to oppose David Trimble and Seamus Mallon as First Minister and Deputy First Minister and still get its Ministries, when it voted against David Trimble and myself as First Minister and Deputy First Minister and still got its Ministries it was changing the law for everyone else—no do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Similarly, Sinn Fein, which had been able to abstain on the election of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister the first time, although it did vote for David Trimble and myself the second time, also wanted to change the rules. The rest of us had to bow to the two parties under that rule.

We defied that rule, and the Social Democratic and Labour party made that very clear. I have seen accounts saying that I used very bad language to Tony Blair, but I do not have any memory of that—my memory is normally good on such things, but he certainly would have been aware that I hoped to have the same political values when I used those four-letter words in very blunt terms, but I certainly do not recall doing so. I did make it very clear that we would not be voting for Sinn Fein and the DUP for First Minister and Deputy First Minister simply as the price of our admission to office.

I resent the idea that potentially the first party to be excluded under the terms of the Good Friday agreement would be a party such as the SDLP simply for exercising the democratic right to abstain; it was not even a case of voting against. Thankfully, it was in a Committee Room along this corridor on the morning of the St Andrews talks in 2006 that the DUP clearly got the message from us, because that remained the intention and the understanding of the two Governments, Sinn Fein and the DUP between 2004 right through to the commencement of the St Andrews talks in 2006. Because of the resolution we were able to show to the DUP delegation we met that morning before travelling to St Andrews, and because Reg Empey, as leader of the Ulster Unionist party, had permitted me to say that the UUP was in the same position, the DUP went to St Andrews saying, “We cannot do joint elections because we do not want to be in the Lobby on our own with Sinn Fein voting for Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness as First Minister and Deputy First Minister.”

I do not know why the DUP did not take us up on our threat, because it would have achieved voluntary coalition, albeit with Sinn Fein, not with the SDLP and other Unionists. In essence, that is what it would have been. The only argument we heard for making that change was, “That’s the way it’s done in other places. Other people wouldn’t be in government unless they voted their confidence in the Head of Government and the Cabinet.” Those are arguments for voluntary coalition.

Sinn Fein and, particularly, the DUP were not in a position simply to go into the Lobby alone to vote in Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, so the agreement was changed. The joint election was done away with, and a new provision was made that the First and Deputy First Ministers would be nominated separately and would get separate letters of nomination from their respective party leaders. That is how it was done.

My argument since then has been that while people said that that was a deviation necessary to get devolution established and a First and a Deputy First Minister appointed, I see no reason to stay with it. On many occasions, Sinn Fein and the DUP have been happy to go into the Lobby, together or on their own, to vote down the rights and interests of and the concerns expressed by other parties. They no longer seem to be embarrassed or to have any difficulty in doing that, so they have overcome their hang-up.

We also have the provision that the Justice Minister is not appointed by d’Hondt as per the agreement, but is instead appointed by a cross-community vote. Many people in Sinn Fein and the DUP argued that there is particular value in having the First and Deputy First Ministers elected by a cross-community vote, but I would say that the same value applies, perhaps even more so, to the position of the First and Deputy First Ministers, and we should go back to what was provided for in the agreement.

Although I am tempted to press the measure to a Division—Members would have the choice of voting for or against something in the Good Friday agreement—I do not want to put them in such a bind as to be voting against the Good Friday agreement again. I hope people see that this option should be considered, encouraged and made available.

New clause 3 does not rest on new clause 4 being agreed to, and it would apply in any event in relation to the First and Deputy First Ministers, whether jointly elected as required by the agreement and as new clause 4 provides, or whether appointed by separate letters, as happens at the minute. Given that the First and Deputy First Ministers have particular roles in relation to the overall workings of the institutions and the wider representation of Northern Ireland—not just in relation to the Government here and the North South Ministerial Council, but with the EU and the United States and at wider international level—when they take the pledge of office they should do so in full, in the hearing of the Assembly.

When we wrote the idea of the pledge of office into the agreement, it was our understanding and intent that the pledge would be read out and that people would hear it. We talked about it being a useful bit of political liturgy, with people hearing the Ministers taking office in those new institutions making the pledges that we were writing into the agreement.

As the person who drafted the pledge of office, I am very conscious of the fact that we made deliberate decisions on such things as

“to serve all the people of Northern Ireland equally”.

There would not be the ambiguity of serving all the people equally or serving people equally, or of not saying “Northern Ireland”, thereby avoiding the issue. Once the Progressive Unionist party, which was pretty agnostic on whether there should be a pledge of office, saw the terms that we were putting into the pledge, it became very enthusiastic, not least because it liked

“all the people of Northern Ireland” being specifically and unambiguously referred to and those words being key to the pledge of office that all Ministers would take. Ministers would not serve their own definition of “the people” and the words “all the people” would be there explicitly. For those reasons, we always believed that there was value in the full pledge being recited, particularly by the First and Deputy First Ministers, given that their responsibilities go much wider than their departmental remit.

In many ways, the significance of the pledge was added to via St Andrews and elsewhere, where ideas that some of us had put forward about expanding the pledge of office to include clear commitments to support the police, respect the courts and operate all the institutions and so on were considered. If those commitments had been added to the pledge of office, I believe that it would have been helpful for people to hear the pledge of office vocalised in that sort of way.

I have taken the opportunity of considering this Bill to put forward again that idea for improvement. It is to follow through on what was the intent—the excellent intent—when we drafted the agreement. We did not intend that Ministers taking office would simply read out a form of words that said, “I affirm the pledge as set out in section such and such of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.” We had intended there to be something with a bit more grace and a bit more meaning than that.

Again, I stress that this new clause is essentially an “advertising amendment”. I make that point very clearly; I do not intend to trouble people with a Division on this issue. However, this is an important matter for those of us who take the agreement, and the offices of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, seriously. I take the office of Deputy First Minister seriously, not least because I held it. I accept that I suffered the curse of the architect who had to live inside his own design and try to work with it. Nevertheless, that joint office is important—it is important now just as it was important in the past—and I want to see that importance underpinned by the sort of changes that I am suggesting in the new clause, although I do not want to press it to a Division.

Photo of Paul Murphy Paul Murphy Labour, Torfaen 2:45, 16 July 2013

My hon. Friend refers to “vocalising”; I think that I was present at that meeting with Tony Blair and my hon. Friend used robust but not obscene language. He made his point very well.

There is no question that what the new clause proposed by the SDLP and my hon. Friend refers to reflects what was, in fact, agreed around the table at the time of the  Good Friday agreement. It was also reflected in the 1998 Northern Ireland Bill, which I steered through the House of Commons. So there is no doubt that that was the case and there was good reason for it. The reason was that the widest possible collegiality, collectivity and pluralism, if you like, of the people who represented the parties at that table would be reflected in the way in which the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister would be elected, and it was jointery. My hon. Friend was a very fine Deputy First Minister and indeed played a huge role in bringing about peace in Northern Ireland—there is no question about that.

However the issue is, of course, that by 2002 the edifice had collapsed, for all sorts of reasons that we do not have to go into today. So it was hugely significant that further progress had to be made. I pay tribute to the DUP, who of course were not signatories to the Good Friday agreement but nevertheless came in and were signatories to the St Andrews agreement and other agreements after that. That meant, as my hon. Friend has said, that that original joint approach to selecting the First Minister and Deputy First Minister was effectively abandoned. However, it was abandoned with good reason, in the sense that there probably would not have been any progress without such an abandonment.

The issue that my hon. Friend refers to is whether, having got to a situation where all parties in Northern Ireland take part in the governance of that place, we should now go back to the original wording of the Good Friday agreement, or of the 1998 Act, and have that joint support for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. I can see some merit in it, for the reasons it was agreed in the first place, not least that the people in Northern Ireland and, indeed, the Republic, voted for that. However, it comes down to the big issue and big principle that have run through not only our Committee proceedings, but Second Reading and other debates, of how far we change those things—and how we do it if we want to change them—in the next few months and years.

My purpose during the negotiations, and that of the British Government and the Irish Government, was to make politics in Northern Ireland as boring as they are in the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic, so that politicians in Northern Ireland would have to make decisions, which are often not very exciting, on health, education, local government and planning in the way that we do. Those decisions are challenging, but not necessarily as exciting as the high politics of making an agreement. Consequently, with the establishment of the Assembly and the Executive, politics are becoming—I will not say boring—ordinary, in the sense of having to act like any other parliament or Government. That rightly takes time, money and energy. The people of Northern Ireland expect their representatives here and in the Assembly to tackle issues that reflect their everyday life—their health, education and so on.

However, from time to time, because it is Northern Ireland, issues such as those that we have experienced in the past three days—parading, whether the flag should be flown from the top of City hall in Belfast, the dissident IRA—show that, inevitably, the deep-rooted problems are still there.

How do we deal with them? My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle is right not to press the new clause. He put me on the spot because he and I drew it up.  However, he is right, because there is a way in which its purpose can be achieved. That means over to the Minister, the Secretary of State and, of course, the First and Deputy First Ministers in Northern Ireland. They, with the Irish Government, are guarantors of the Good Friday and St Andrews agreements.

Today, the House has been chock-a-block with Northern Ireland business: the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights in Westminster Hall, the ten-minute rule Bill of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley and what we are doing in Committee, not to mention the statement about the past few days. The day has been dominated by issues that affect Northern Ireland and that are still important.

How do we tackle them? I believe that a Committee in the Assembly already deals with how to look at the institutions of government in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday agreement. There is a similar Committee in the Republic of Ireland. It therefore behoves the Government, in the form of the Northern Ireland Office, to help in that process. That can sometimes mean considerable proactivity, but the issues are sensitive.

However, just because people have very different views, that does not mean that we cannot get resolution. If we had said that, there would be no agreement. When Sir John Major started talks before the Labour Government took office, no one believed that anything would happen, but neither he nor his successors gave up. Sometimes, if the issue is worth it, one has to seek consensus in a positive way.

I therefore believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle is right not to press the new clause, and to draw the Committee’s attention—and, I hope, that of the Northern Ireland Assembly—to the fact that the problems have not gone away, that they need to be addressed, but that they can be tackled only by proper consensus among the parties.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

When my hon. Friend the Member for Foyle moved his previous new clauses, all was amity, and I do not in any way seek to break those bonds of fraternity. However, a small cloud drifts across the sun on this occasion because, although no one could be anything other than sympathetic to the intentions behind the motion, the fact that my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen has already referred to the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, which is currently sitting to discuss the matter, as well as the north-south aspect, means that it is probably not appropriate to make a decision at this stage.

There is also an important point of principle. It may not appeal to every member of the Committee, but certainly the Opposition are reluctant to put ourselves in a position whereby Westminster legislates on matters relating to the Assembly’s internal operations, unless the Assembly’s express wishes are made available to us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle is seldom wrong, and seldom less than positive, helpful and forward looking. He speaks from a wealth of experience, particularly of the unfortunate architect. However, on this occasion, the people who should consider the matter are doing so, in the place where it needs to be considered. On that basis, I am delighted that we will not be in the position of having to make an awful, painful decision were a vote to be taken. Fortunately, not for the first time, my hon. Friend has spared us the pain.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Foyle for expressing his views so articulately, but indicating that he would not press the amendments to a vote, not least for the reasons alluded to by the shadow Minister, which was exactly the same position as when we were in opposition and the Labour party in government—we gave them support for those same reasons. It is crucial that we wait for the several reports, not least from Northern Ireland, but also from the south. Her Majesty’s Government, with the help of Her Majesty’s Opposition, will then work with the First and Deputy First Ministers, which is massively important, to move the agenda on, based on what they would use. On that basis, I am pleased that the hon. Member for Foyle has aired his views and that he is not minded to press the amendments.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I thank hon. Members for their compliments, even with the barbs in some of them. I have a couple of points to make in reply.

First, we have again had reference to the Government and the House only legislating on the basis of things that all the parties have agreed in Northern Ireland, but I make the point that, when the change was made in the St Andrews agreement to alter the Good Friday agreement requirement that the First and Deputy First Ministers should be jointly elected by the Assembly, there was not all-party agreement; two parties agreed with that change. There seems to be one rule for certain changes, and another rule for other changes. Governments will claim the exigencies of the political moment, that that is what has to be done, but if changes can be mounted on the back of the requirements of two parties, for no better reason than they did not want to be seen in the Lobby on their own together—that was the only reason why that significant change ended up being made—it seems realistic to seek something different.

Also, not everything that has supposedly been looked at in the Assembly and Executive Review Committee is something that the various members of that Committee will say has been actively and seriously looked at. Let us not fool ourselves that that Committee is on the threshold of delivering something substantive on the issues, so that we should not usurp or disturb it in any way.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

I completely accept the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but we have got to give the Committee that chance. He sits on that Committee—

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

Sorry, I apologise. If we do not give the Committee that chance now, it will never make a decision, so let us see what comes out of the review.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Treasury)

The point of advertising the amendments in this Committee is partly to give some encouragement, prompting and questions from outside. I am no longer in the Assembly, nor on the Assembly and Executive Review Committee, but I know that it is not the case that those things are under live and imminent consideration in that way. I am indicating that, having heard what I have said, if there are bad arguments, I will be a hit man against bad arguments whenever they are heard—I am doing that in this instance.

I also make the point about the difference, although some people might not think that there is not much of one, between the First and Deputy First Ministers being nominated simply by letter from their respective party nominating officers and by the Assembly. I believe, however, that that can make a difference. Certainly, when I was Deputy First Minister, I was particularly conscious of having been elected Deputy First Minister by the votes of Unionists as well as nationalists, so when it came to the death of the Queen Mother, I was there at the recall of the Assembly, which took place to pay respects. Similarly, I went to the funeral—it was a bit of a surprise to the First Minister that I was going, and I do not know if he particularly wanted me to go. As far as I was concerned, I was Deputy First Minister for the whole community, elected on a cross-community basis, so I owed respect to those in my community and those they particularly respect and have a loyal affinity to—for example, the Queen Mother and the Queen. We received the Queen in the institution of the Assembly, a decision for which I was attacked by Martin McGuinness and others at the time. A hoarding was unveiled in Bogside, and I was teased for my support for policing and for having met the Queen. I was glad that subsequently Martin McGuinness discharged a requirement of his office when he met the Queen. I do not see why it had to be contrived to take place in some other premises under some other auspices. I see no reason why it should not have happened in the institution of Assembly, as for my meeting.

The joint mandate of the Assembly encourages and allows the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to act as more than cheerleader and champion for their own community or their own political identity. It allows, and in many ways compels, them to reach that bit further. That is relevant in dealing with a shared future and various symbolic issues. I want to use our debate on these advertising clauses as a prompt to colleagues at home and others to consider some of those issues. There are things in the way the Assembly works that we can take forward.

I have made criticisms of the parties that currently hold the office of First and Deputy First Minister for the way they dealt with local government boundaries and the interests and concerns of other parties on a number of matters. There is a danger that parties are encouraged to treat those offices as their respective party properties. That should not be the case. The appointments should come from the Assembly voting jointly. There is also symbolism in the Ministers reciting the pledge of office in the presence of the Assembly as a whole and on the public record.

I do not wish to press the new clause to an awkward Division. I thank Members for their consideration, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.