Public Affairs

Time to reboot the St Andrews Act algorithm

Recent frets and threats about an “unthinkable” prospect of a Sinn Féin First Minister ignore current realities of office. They also show the DUP is now confounded by the exclusive nomination formula for First Minister posts which they secured at St Andrews, writes former SDLP deputy First Minister Mark Durkan.

Like issues stemming from Brexit, faced with a predicament largely of their making, some unionist politicians are resorting to dubious claims about the Belfast Agreement (GFA), including that the 1998 terms reserved the post of First Minister to a MLA from the largest designation (unionist/nationalist/other).

The GFA and 1998 Act provided joint and equal posts of First Minister and deputy First Minister, to be jointly nominated in the Assembly, open to any two MLAs, allowing alternative joint nominations and subject to endorsement by cross-community vote (specifically “parallel consent”).

While debating D’Hondt for departmental ministries, negotiators ruled that out for filling suggested First and Second Minister posts. Alliance’s earmarking idea — reserving First Minister (cross-government coordination) to the largest designation, Second Minister (external relations) to the second largest and Presiding Officer to the third — was declined.

Instead, we agreed the joint office of consubstantial First Ministers, whose joint election by the Assembly was partly to mark that “The Assembly…will be the prime source of authority in respect of all devolved responsibilities”. The UUP insisted on a nominal differential of “deputy” as the price of accepting the joint and equal office, shared functions and combined Assembly mandate.

St Andrews abolished that election to privatise nominations to parties according to seat and designation ranking. This was demanded to avoid DUP MLAs being in the lobby with Sinn Féin MLAs to vote for joint nominees. It also suited the DUP to tribalise Assembly elections into ‘first-past-the-post’ for First Minister. Prowess in that vein has perhaps waned over misguided Brexit stances.

The time has come, under GFA review mechanisms, for a reset to joint election. This should include abolishing the vestigial “deputy” prefix, as many parties have advocated, including Sinn Féin. Others may now realise the sense of this.

The threshold for restored joint election, however, should not be confined to “parallel consent”. The alternative GFA measure of a qualified weighted majority of 60 per cent etc should also be available. So too should an additional option, not tied to designation, also reflecting wide cross-party and community support.

The 1998 Act empowered “two-thirds of MLAs” (without reference to designation) to dissolve an Assembly out of schedule. New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) legislation convolutedly touches on this Assembly power in the context of failure to fill First Ministerial vacancies.

Why not take that agreed logic further as part of overcoming the possible stalemate and “ransom politics” of which the DUP and Sinn Féin accuse each other and other parties complain?

Other parties could no longer just blame “the two parties” privileged by the St Andrews Act algorithm. (Its perverse permutations, in light of recent polling, should not be ignored!).

Such a renewal and reform reboot would: i) re-empower the Assembly; ii) enable more demonstrably collective responsibility; iii) provide an alternative to a vista of rollover stalemates inherent in NDNA scenarios; and iv) offer a democratic graduation beyond the straits of designation.

Not trying to preclude designation-related options in current circumstances pre-empts likely accusations about “moving the goalposts” given unionist arguments around the Protocol and “consent” or concern about a disproportionate veto falling unavoidably to a small party if two-thirds became the sole threshold.

The need is not just for a new fix for or among all parties. An increasingly frustrated or cynical public wants institutions which address our collective pressing problems, not default to divisive crises. It is in our collective democratic interests that we avert the compound uncertainty and potential demolition derby of precious Strands of the Agreement which are clearly augured if we do not remove the St Andrews malware and install updated, more democratic GFA-compatible apps.

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