• Designations are chosen by MLAs on the first sitting day of the Assembly.
  • They cannot be amended thereafter for the remainder of the mandate, barring exceptional circumstances.
  • Had UUP/SDLP MLAs designated as Other, that designation would have been the largest in the Assembly.
  • Under the terms of the St Andrew’s Agreement, Sinn Féin (as the largest single party) would have been allowed to nominate a First Minister and Alliance would have been entitled to nominate a deputy First Minister. 
  • However, this wouldn’t necessarily help with the nomination of an Assembly Speaker, meaning the broader Stormont impasse could continue.

A letter printed in the Irish News on 18 September claimed that the UUP and SDLP could have prevented the DUP from being entitled to the post of deputy First Minister by designating as Other following the May 2022 elections. The letter said:

“The outcome of that election resulted in designated unionists forming the majority followed by designated nationalists and then designated others.

“Under the terms of the St Andrews Agreement this led to Sinn Féin nominating the First Minister even though they were not from the largest designation, and the deputy First Minister would then be nominated by the largest party from the largest designation, which is the DUP. However, it was entirely within the power of the UUP and SDLP to instead designate as ‘other’ to make that the largest designation, which would have allowed the largest party from that designation – Alliance – to nominate the deputy First Minister.”

Simply put, this is accurate.

Choosing a designation is one of the first things an MLA has to do upon joining the Northern Ireland Assembly. If all UUP and SDLP members had designated as Other, as opposed to Unionist and Nationalist respectively, then Sinn Féin would retain their entitlement to nominate a First Minister while Alliance, rather than DUP, would be allowed to nominate a deputy First Minister.

It is also possible for individual MLAs to switch designations during a mandate. While this is only supposed to happen under certain circumstances, it would theoretically be possible for all MLAs to make this happen (and mid-mandate switches don’t affect which party gets to nominate the deputy First Minister, anyway).

However, an apparent inability to form an Executive is only one issue currently facing NI’s institutions. The failure to elect a Speaker is what has prevented the Assembly from sitting properly in the 16 months since the election.

  • Designation

All MLAs must choose a community designation at the first meeting of the Assembly following an election or their co-option into Stormont: Nationalist, Unionist or Other.

The overall size of each designation plays a crucial role in determining which parties are entitled to nominate a First Minister and deputy First Minister.

The three designations are each deemed to have a size equal to the number of members who work under that designation (with first-preference votes in the prior election used as a tie-breaker, if and when required).

  • Mechanism

FactCheckNI has looked before at the process of nominating First and deputy First Ministers.

Essentially, after an election, the First Minister will normally come from within the largest designation (Nationalist, Unionist, or Other), nominated by the largest party within that designation. The deputy First Minister will then come from within the second largest designation (Nationalist, Unionist, or Other), nominated by the largest party within that designation.

One caveat in the legislation is that, if the overall largest party in the Assembly is not within the largest designation, it will still get to nominate the First Minister, and then the largest party within the largest designation will nominate the deputy First Minister. This provision is detailed in Section 16C(6) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and means that the largest party after an election chooses the First Minister no matter the size of their designation.

  • Current Assembly

The current Assembly session followed elections held in May 2022.

Of the 90 MLAs, 37 designated as Unionist, 35 as Nationalist and 18 as Other – making Unionist the largest designation.

However, the three largest parties were Sinn Féin (27 seats, all designated Nationalist), DUP (25 seats, all Unionist) and Alliance (17 seats, all Other).

As the largest party overall, Sinn Féin was entitled to nominate a First Minister. As the largest party within the largest designation different from Sinn Féin’s the DUP was entitled to nominate a deputy First Minister.

  • Switch

Had members of both the UUP (nine seats, all Unionist) and the SDLP (eight seats, all Nationalist) chosen to designate as Other, the picture would have changed significantly.

Sinn Féin would still be the largest party; therefore entitled to nominate the First Minister.

However, 35 members would have designated as Other, with 28 Unionist and 27 Nationalist, meaning the deputy First Minister would come from the largest party within the largest  designation, Alliance.

This means the claim is accurate. However, there are two extra useful pieces of context.

  • Changing places

The original Northern Ireland Act that followed the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement gave individual MLAs much more freedom to change designation at short notice during an Assembly mandate – a freedom that was wielded on at least one occasion.

However, as well as changing the rules for nominating a First Minister and deputy First Minister, the St Andrew’s Agreement also placed greater restrictions on switching designations.

Under the current rules, once an MLA has chosen a designation (which is pretty much the first thing they do upon taking office), they may only change this designation if they change political party, they cease to be a member of a political party, or having not been a party member they become one. 

In theory, there are ways to circumvent this – for instance, all members of the UUP or SDLP could momentarily resign their party membership before rejoining – but this has not been tested. Moreover, current SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood MP has ruled out any political manoeuvering around designations.

  • Most important of all

While chicanery around designations could, with the current breakdown of seats, exclude the DUP from nominating a deputy First Minister and change the shape of any possible Executive, this wouldn’t bring the whole Stormont impasse to an end.

The primary reason the Assembly has not been able to sit is because of the failure to nominate a Speaker and deputy Speakers.

This is different from the process of nominating First and deputy First Ministers. A Speaker, and deputies, must be elected via a cross-community vote, which can be achieved in two ways:

  • Parallel consent requires Aye votes from 50% of MLAs present, plus 50% of Nationalists and 50% of Unionists; or
  • Weighted majority requires the support of 60% of MLAs present, plus 40% of Unionists and 40% of Nationalists.

DUP members currently account for 25 out of 37 Unionist members, which is 67.6%. If the UUP re-designated, that would only increase this percentage.
If MLAs from other designations switched to Unionist, this equation could change… but that’s another matter entirely.