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

Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 6th July 2021.

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“(1) The Northern Ireland Act 1998 is amended as follows.

(2) In section 16A (Appointment of First Minister, deputy First Minister and Northern Ireland Ministers following Assembly election), in subsection 4, omit the words “of the largest political designation“.

(3) For subsection (5) of that section, substitute—

“(5) The nominating officer of the second largest political party shall nominate a member of the Assembly to be the deputy First Minister.”.

(4) In section 16(B) (Vacancies in the office of First Minister or deputy First Minister), in subsection (4), omit the words “of the largest political designation“.

(5) For subsection (5) of that section, substitute—

“(5) The nominating officer of the second largest political party shall nominate a member of the Assembly to be the deputy First Minister.”.

(6) In section 16C (Sections 16A and 16B: supplementary), omit subsection (6).”—

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Graham Stringer Graham Stringer Labour, Blackley and Broughton

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 3—Appointment of First Ministers—

“(1) The Northern Ireland Act 1998 is amended as follows.

(2) In subsection 16A (appointment of Ministers following Assembly election), leave out subsections (4) to (7) and subsection (9), and insert after subsection (3)—

“(3ZA) Each candidate for the office of First Minister or deputy First Minister, or jointly First Ministers, must stand for election jointly with a candidate for the other office.

(3ZB) Two candidates standing jointly shall not be elected to the two offices without one or more of the following measures of representational support—

(a) the support of a majority of members, a majority of designated Nationalists and a majority of Unionists; or

(b) the support of 60 per cent of members, 40 per cent of designated Nationalists and 40 per cent of designated Unionists; or

(c) the support of two thirds of members.

(3ZC) 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 Ministers.”.

(3) In subsection (3)(a) the reference to “subsections (4) to (7)” shall be replaced by a reference to “subsections (3ZA) to (3ZC)”.”.

This new clause would restore the Good Friday Agreement provision for joint election by the Assembly of the joint First Ministers.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down 10:45 am, 6th July 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.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party, Belfast South

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.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office

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.

Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down

We may return to the matter on Report. For now, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.