On 3 February, Northern Ireland’s first minister, Paul Givan, resigned from his post in protest over the Northern Ireland Protocol. The previous day had seen DUP agriculture minister, Edwin Poots, order his department to halt checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, although checks are continuing whilst the court considers the legality of the move.
The first minister’s resignation will have implications for Northern Ireland’s specific governance arrangements, which require political parties from both communities – nationalist and unionist – to be in government. Northern Ireland Assembly elections are scheduled for May 2022, but Sinn Fein have called for them to be brought forward.
Northern Ireland has a power-sharing institutions, as established under the Good Friday Agreement. Its unique governance arrangements are designed to protect the rights of both communities. The Northern Ireland institutions have responsibility over transferred matters including health, social care, housing, education, justice and policing and social security.
Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLAs) are elected using the proportional single transferable vote system. MLAs must then designate themselves as either ‘unionists’, ‘nationalist’ or ‘other’.
The Northern Ireland Executive is drawn from the Assembly and consists of a first minister and deputy first minister and eight ministers, who oversee departments as set out in law. Despite their titles, the first minister and deputy first minister have the same powers and jointly oversee the executive committee comprised of other ministers. They are required to come from different political designations, and so Northern Ireland’s governance arrangements can be described as a mandatory coalition.
The largest party in the largest community designation in the Assembly is automatically entitled to the position of first minister, and the largest party in the second largest community designation is entitled to the position of deputy first minister. Even if an “other” party topped or came second in the poll, they would not take the first or deputy first minister jobs if ‘other’ was not the largest or second largest designation too.
Entitled parties nominate an MLA for their respective positions. If that person does not take up office, a further nomination may be made.
Most other ministerial positions are allocated to political parties according to party strength in the Assembly using the d’Hondt system – where a mathematical formula allocates both the number of executive posts to which a party is entitled and the order in which they choose their portfolio. This can mean that some of the most troublesome portfolios are chosen late an often go to the smaller parties. Parties can decline to nominate a person for a ministerial position and instead join the official opposition. Currently, all the five parties entitled to ministerial positions parties have chosen to go into government.
The exception to this process is the position of justice minister, a post which has to be voted in with cross-community support. The cross-community party Alliance Party leader, Naomi Long, is the current justice minister.
If either the first minister of the deputy first minister resigns, the other ceases to hold office. Until recently, if no subsequent appointment was made within seven days, then the secretary of state for Northern Ireland was required to call an election and all other ministers also ceased to hold office. This is the process that was followed after Martin McGuiness resigned as deputy first minister on 9 January 2017. As the parties were unable to re-establish the Executive after the subsequent election in March 2017, the UK government repeatedly extended the timescale for forming a government, and Northern Ireland had no ministers in post for three years, leaving civil servants to keep government functioning.
However, legislation extending the seven day period to a six week period is expected to gain royal assent on 7 February. The six week period can be renewed three times, for up to 24 weeks, although the Assembly can prevent the time period being renewed through a vote with cross community support (either majority of members present and voting, and majority of unionists and nationalist designations or 60% of members present and voting and 40% of unionist and nationalist designations). The resignation of the first minister still causes the deputy first minister to cease to hold office, but the changes will also allow ministers to continue to hold office for up to 24 weeks after an election or 48 weeks after the first minister or deputy first minister resigns.
The new rules will apply to any resignations that take place in the seven day period before the Act has entered into force, so will apply to Paul Givan’s resignation on 3 February.
What will the first minister resignation mean for the functioning of government in Northern Ireland?
Since Paul Givan’s resignation, there is no longer a first minister or deputy first minister. Unlike the period between January 2017 and 2020, where civil servants were required to govern Northern Ireland without ministers, ministers (including DUP ministers) will remain in post and will be able to direct their respective departments. The Northern Ireland Assembly will remain in shadow form and still be able to pass legislation.
However, the executive committee – chaired by the first minister and deputy first minister – will no longer be able to meet. Issues that are ‘significant or controversial’ are required to be discussed in the executive committee under the statutory ministerial code, so it is not clear whether ministers will be able to take decisions on the draft budget that is currently under consultation, or the planned review of covid regulations on 10 February.