Westminster plan could see Northern Ireland 'joint first ministers' rebrand

Westminster's Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has recommended the roles of first minister and deputy first minister be rebranded and opened to MLAs from outside the largest unionist and nationalist.

It was suggested that in addition to the new name, the roles would require a two-thirds supermajority to fill the positions.

The First and deputy First Minister positions, created in the the Good Friday Agreement, hold equal weight and one can not operate without the other. The deputy designation goes to the smaller of the two parties.

Sinn Féin is entitled to the First Minister office, but has been unable to take up the role due to the DUP boycott of the institutions.

The NI Affairs committee has also suggested the same supermajority method be used to elect a Speaker in order to restore the Assembly.

The recommendations were made following an inquiry into the effectiveness of the Good Friday institutions with the goal of restoring and stabilising power sharing.

Northern Ireland has been without a functioning executive for 21 months.

The DUP has been blocking power sharing in protest at the internal UK trade barriers created by Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

During the suspension, the DUP has blocked several attempts to elect a Speaker, which is required before ministers can be nominated to form an executive.

Within current rules, 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.

The committee heard that more people than ever in Northern Ireland identify as neither unionist nor nationalist, therefore “supermajority” voting would “effectively equate to cross-community consent”.

The report added that, in recognition of their equal status, the roles of first and deputy first minister should be rebranded as “joint first ministers”.

The position would be open to any two MLAs of any two parties rather than just the largest unionist and nationalist parties.

Under current rules, Sinn Féin’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill is entitled to claim the position of first minister as her party emerged with the largest number of MLAs following last year’s Assembly elections.

The changes would require consultation with the Irish Government, as well as the parties of Northern Ireland.

The 1998 Northern Ireland Act, which secures the power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, would also need to be changed.

Committee chairman 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.”

He added: “The short-term measures we’ve proposed will shore up the stability of Stormont increasing the incentives to keep the institutions 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.”

DUP MP Carla Lockhart sits on the committee. She said her party have grave concerns about the recommendations contained within the report.

She said: "We opposed it and submitted our own minority report."

"The last 25 years could not have happened without inbuilt protections for unionists and nationalists and this report is trying to set this aside."

SDLP MP Claire Hanna, whose party made some of the proposals, said: "These proposals will stand by the principles of the Good Friday Agreement, protect things like power sharing and partnership but will get away from it being manifested in deadlock, veto and division.”

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