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Committee proposes raft of measures to stabilise Stormont

4 December 2023

  • Call for NI Assembly Speaker to be elected by two-thirds majority of MLAs.
  • First and Deputy First Minister should be rebranded ‘Joint First Ministers’.
  • Joint First Minister elections should be open to any party and also be elected by two-thirds majority of MLAs.

A new report by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee into the effectiveness of the institutions of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement has issued a raft of proposals aimed at restoring and stabilising Stormont.

Among the measures are calls for the UK Government to urgently reform the Assembly Speaker election rules so that a candidate can be elected by a two-thirds supermajority of MLAs.

The same threshold should be used to elect First and Deputy First Ministers, the report recommends. It adds that in recognition of their equal status, the positions should be rebranded as ‘Joint First Ministers’ with the position open to any two MLAs of any two parties rather than just the largest parties as is the case today.

Each of these changes would require consultation with the Irish Government as co-guarantors to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement as well as the parties of Northern Ireland and would require tweaking the 1998 Northern Ireland Act that came from the Agreement. The Act enshrines power-sharing government and devolution in NI.

Currently, votes from a majority of MLAs within both the Nationalist and Unionist traditions are needed to secure the posts of Speaker, and First and Deputy First Ministers. With the growth of the proportion of NI society identifying as neither Unionist nor Nationalist since the Agreement, supermajority voting would effectively equate to cross-community consent, the Committee heard during its inquiry.

Committee Chair Sir Robert Buckland said, “When Stormont collapses critical public services are cast adrift. Health, education, policing; all are feeling the strain while important decisions go unmade, and the people of Northern Ireland suffer.”

“More stringent safeguards are needed to protect against the cycle of restoration and collapse that has dogged Stormont.”

“The short-term measures we’ve proposed will shore up the stability of Stormont increasing the incentives to keep the institution moving and enabling the Assembly to run without an Executive in place.”

“In the longer run, we feel that a full independent review into the effectiveness of the institutions of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement should be conducted with input from all stakeholders. This should include the North-South and East-West elements, but a fully functioning Stormont is the foundation on which the rest stands.”

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