The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has endorsed a deal to restore the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. These have not been fully functioning since February 2022.
This Insight looks at how the Executive – Northern Ireland’s devolved government – is formed, including the nomination of a First Minister and deputy First Minister.
Initial Assembly business
Section 31(4) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 provides that, following an election, the Northern Ireland Assembly “shall meet within the period of eight days beginning with the day of the poll at which it is elected”.
Section 39 provides that at this meeting, the Assembly “shall as its first business elect from among its members a Presiding Officer and deputies”. These are known as the Speaker and (three) Deputy Speakers. Under the Assembly’s Standing Orders, the procedure at the first meeting of a new Assembly is:
- Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) take their seats by signing the Assembly’s roll of membership;
- After signing the roll an MLA may enter in the roll a “designation of identity”, which can be “Nationalist”, “Unionist” or “Other”;
- Once all MLAs have taken their seats and registered their party affiliation and designation of identity, the Assembly proceeds to elect a Speaker.
The first two parts of this procedure were completed at the Assembly’s meeting on 13 May 2022 and do not need to be repeated.
How is the Speaker elected?
Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, a person cannot be elected Speaker “without cross-community support”, either through parallel consent or a weighted majority.
Parallel consent means a majority of MLAs present and voting, including a majority of the Unionist and Nationalist designations. A weighted majority means at least 60% of MLAs present and voting, including at least 40% from the Nationalist and Unionist designations.
In essence, this means that a successful Speaker (and their three deputies) needs support from both Unionist and Nationalist MLAs.
Since the last election in May 2022, the Assembly has met seven times in an attempt to elect a Speaker. On each occasion, the DUP refused to provide its assent, which meant a Speaker was not elected and the Assembly could not proceed to other business, including the nomination of a First Minister and deputy First Minister.
How are the First and deputy First Ministers appointed?
The Northern Ireland Executive comprises the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and eight departmental ministers. Together, these ministers exercise executive authority on behalf of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Unlike at Westminster and in the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, where one or more parties can form a government if they possess the “confidence” of (a bare majority in) their respective chambers, in Northern Ireland the Executive must comprise at least two parties representing two different designations (usually Unionist and Nationalist).
Initially, the First Minister and deputy First Minister (who, despite their titles, govern jointly) were elected by the Assembly. But under the 2006 St Andrews Agreement and subsequent legislation, they are now nominated, respectively, by the largest party within the largest political designation and the largest party within the second-largest political designation.
Following the May 2022 Assembly election, the DUP was the largest party within the largest designation (Unionist) and Sinn Féin the largest party within the second-largest designation (Nationalist). However, as Sinn Féin was also the single largest party in the Assembly with 27 MLAs, under section 16C of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 it can nominate Michelle O’Neill as First Minister, while the DUP can nominate one of its MLAs as deputy First Minister. As Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader, is an MP rather than an MLA, he cannot assume the role himself. This would be the first time Northern Ireland has had a Nationalist rather than Unionist First Minister.
Unlike in Scotland and Wales, where the Monarch formally appoints the First Minister under statute, and at Westminster, where they appoint a Prime Minister using prerogative powers, the King has no role in the appointment of the First Minister and deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.
How are the other Executive ministers appointed?
Once a First Minister and deputy First Minister have been nominated, other Executive ministers will be nominated by the political parties represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The number nominated by each is determined under the d’Hondt formula by its share of seats in the Assembly, which means the number of ministers each party has broadly reflects its share of the vote. The only exception is the Minister for Justice, which since 2010 has been appointed following a cross-community vote of the whole Assembly.
About the author: David Torrance is the Northern Ireland specialist at the House of Commons Library.
Corrections and clarifications
This Insight was amended on 31 January 2024 to clarify which was the largest designation following the May 2022 Assembly election and the rules for nominating a First Minister under section 16C of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.