• The 2006 St Andrews Agreement made significant changes to the rules for nominating a First and deputy First Minister and, thus, forming an Executive.
  • However, given their numbers of seats, both the DUP and Sinn Féin would still currently wield veto powers under the old system.
  • This has been true at every other election since the rules changed.

On 21 October, the Irish Times published an article by columnist Stephen Collins which said:

“[T]he obstacle to progress is the 2006 St Andrews Agreement which modified the 1998 Belfast Agreement as a sop to Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

“The core of the St Andrews Arrangement was that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister would no longer be elected by the Assembly, as happened under the terms of the Belfast Agreement. Instead the largest party was given the right to nominate the First Minister, and the largest party in the other community was given the right to nominate the Deputy First Minister…

“What it has effectively done is to give the DUP and Sinn Féin a veto over the formation of the Executive and encouraged the drift from more moderate unionist and nationalist parties to the extremes.”

This is inaccurate.

Given how many MLAs each party currently has elected to the Assembly, both Sinn Féin and the DUP would have an effective veto on forming an Executive under the old rules as well as the new.

Original terms

The election of the First and Deputy First Ministers office is set out in Strand One, point 15 in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which states: “The First Minister and Deputy First Minister shall be jointly elected into office by the Assembly voting on a cross-community basis.”

The Agreement had explicit criteria for cross-community voting, namely:

(i) either parallel consent, i.e. a majority of those members present and voting, including a majority of the unionist and nationalist designations present and voting; (ii) or a weighted majority (60%) of members present and voting, including at least 40% of each of the nationalist and unionist designations present and voting. 

Under those rules, any party holding more than 60% of votes for either the unionist or nationalist designation would be able to block any nomination for First Minister or deputy First Minister.

Sinn Féin currently has 27 MLAs, while the total number of Members who designate as nationalist is 35, meaning Sinn Fein holds 77.1% of the nationalist vote.

The DUP has 25 MLAs out of 37 designated unionists, which is 67.6% of the designation’s total.

So under the original rules, both the DUP and Sinn Féin would today have had a veto on the First and deputy First Minister.

Changing times

In 2006, these rules were amended under the St Andrews Agreement (point 9). The new rules state:

The Nominating Officer of the largest party in the largest designation in the Assembly shall make a nomination to the Assembly Presiding Officer for the post of First Minister. The Nominating Officer of the largest party in the second largest designation in the Assembly shall similarly nominate for the post of Deputy First Minister.

A previous FactCheckNI article explains in detail how this process works.

There have been five elections since the rules changed. Each time the DUP has won over 60% of unionist-designated seats and Sinn Féin has won more than 60% of seats under the nationalist designation.

So after each election since the change in rules, both Sinn Féin and the DUP would have had the ability to unilaterally scupper formation of an Executive under the original terms (see results for 2007, 2011, 2016 and 2017).
It’s worth noting that the original rules were not a guarantee of stability. In 2001, then UUP Leader David Trimble failed to secure the support of a majority of Unionists to vote for his return as First Minister (as the First and deputy First Ministers were originally ‘elected’ in the Assembly rather than ‘nominated’ under the St Andrews’ changes). This provoked the Alliance Party to redesignate from “other” to “unionist” in order to give Trimble enough votes to take up the post.