The publication of polling data about changing levels of party support in Northern Ireland has led to speculation about which parties might be in a position to nominate one of their MLAs to be First or deputy First Minister after future elections. In particular, there has been conjecture that an enlarged Alliance Party team could potentially nominate the deputy First Minister if their results surpassed those of the DUP or Sinn Féin.
Fact checkers don’t predict future events. This article explores the process currently in place that decides who leads Northern Ireland’s devolved government so you can understand how the process would be followed after the next election.
Process after an election
Under the current rules, the Northern Ireland Assembly must hold its first meeting within eight working days of an election. The size of each party is determined on the day on which the Assembly first meets following its election (see 16C(2)(a)). At its first meeting, each elected member must sign the Register and designate themselves as Nationalist, Unionist or Other. The Speaker is also elected.
The Assembly then has a fortnight from its first meeting to appoint the Executive Committee of Ministers in charge of the government departments for Northern Ireland.
While departmental ministers (except the Justice Minister who is elected with cross-community support) are appointed by parties using the d’Hondt system, the First and deputy First Ministers are nominated. Two Junior Ministers are also appointed to the Executive Office.
Selecting the First and deputy First Ministers
The process of selecting the First and deputy First Ministers stems from the St Andrews Agreement (October 2006) and the subsequent legislation which codified the results of the negotiations.
Paragraph 9 of the St Andrews Agreement states:
- Appointment of Ministers in the Executive. An amendment would be made to the 1998 Act on appointment of Ministers in the Executive. 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.
You can read more details about this process in the Northern Ireland Act 1998; see especially Sections 16A and 16C.
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 – not mentioned in the St Andrews Agreement – 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) and means that the largest party after an election chooses the First Minister no matter the size of their designation.
So far, the largest party has always been part of the largest designation.
Before the St Andrews Agreement, candidates for the position of First and deputy First Minister put themselves forward jointly and the Assembly voted. Nominees required the support of an overall majority of MLAs, plus a majority of Nationalist-designating MLAs and a majority of Unionist-designating MLAs. This procedure elected David Trimble and Seamus Mallon to the top posts in December 1999, and David Trimble and Mark Durkan in November 2001.
How has the St Andrews process played out to date?
Since the St Andrews Agreement, the table below outlines how MLAs designated along with the party strength after the last four elections (March 2007, May 2011, May 2016, March 2017). (The number of MLAs elected reduced from 108 to 90 at the March 2017 election.) The gold shading indicates which figure drove the process to nominate the First Minister; the blue for the deputy First Minister.
Mathematically, if the number of MLAs designating as Other sizeably increased so that Other was the first or second largest designation (scenarios 5 and 6 below), the largest party in that designation could nominate for the First or deputy First Minister posts. The only other way an Other party could nominate a First Minister would be to become the largest party overall (scenario 4 below) in which section 16C (6) of the Northern Ireland Act (1998) would come into play.
The table below illustrates the results of following the rules in a series of completely imaginary example scenarios using three parties (A, B and C). The gold shading again indicates which figure (size of designation or largest party) drives the decision on which party nominates First Minister, and the blue shading indicates which designation would nominate the deputy First Minister post.