Voters in Northern Ireland yesterday (Thursday 5 May) elected Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) to sit in the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont.

It is the first election since changes to the devolution settlement following the 2020 ‘New Decade, New Approach’ agreement.

This Insight looks at how the Executive – Northern Ireland’s devolved government – is formed once all the votes have been counted, a process which could take some time given ongoing disagreements regarding the Northern Ireland Protocol and Irish language legislation.

Elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly

Voters in Northern Ireland elect 90 MLAs, five each in 18 multi-member constituencies. Elections are conducted under the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system of proportional representation, which involves transfers of second and third-preference votes. Votes are counted manually, a process which can take one or two days. This means final results might not be available until Saturday.

At the first meeting of an Assembly following an election, MLAs designate themselves Nationalist, Unionist or Other. These are “community” designations and MLAs can only change them between elections if they have changed their party-political affiliation. Many votes in the Assembly require cross-community support, of which there are two sorts: Parallel Consent or a Weighted Majority.

The Assembly meets at the Parliament Buildings on the outskirts of Belfast, commonly known as “Stormont”. Election results then provide the basis for the formation of an Executive, which is Northern Ireland’s devolved government.

The Northern Ireland Executive

Unlike at Westminster and in the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments, where one or more parties can form a government if they have the “confidence” (ie a majority) of their respective chambers, in Northern Ireland the Executive must comprise at least two parties representing two different designations. Parties which choose not to take part in the Executive formation process instead form the opposition at Stormont.

The Northern Ireland Executive comprises the First Minister, deputy First Minister and eight departmental ministers. Together, these ministers exercise executive authority on behalf of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Initially, the First and deputy First Minister (who, despite their titles, jointly head the Executive Office) 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.

If the largest party overall is not from the largest political designation, then that party nominates the First Minister. If the two largest parties in the Assembly have the same number of seats, then the number of first-preference votes determines which is deemed the largest.

Executive ministers are nominated by the political parties 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 has been appointed following a cross-community vote of the whole Assembly since 2010.

New Decade, New Approach

The New Decade, New Approach agreement, which restored Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions in January 2020, proposed changes to the operation of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. Some of these were given legislative effect by the UK Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022, which received Royal Assent on 9 February 2022.

By law, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is now required to propose a date for an Assembly election if a First and deputy First Minister have not been appointed after four consecutive six-week periods for negotiations.

The Act also allows ministers to remain in office following an election for up to 24 weeks, and for up to 48 weeks if the First and/or deputy First Minister stop holding office (through, for example, resignation). However, without a First and deputy First Minister in place, then no decision that is “controversial or cross-cutting” (for example, a budget) can be taken by other Executive ministers.

These changes were intended to give greater stability to Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions and avoid a repeat of the 2017-20 period during which neither the Assembly nor Executive were fully functioning. It means that political parties in Northern Ireland have until mid-October to agree upon an Executive. If there is no agreement by that point, then the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is obliged to call another Assembly election.

Northern Ireland Protocol and proposed Assembly reforms

Democratic Unionist Party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson warned during the election campaign that an Executive might not be formed until disagreements over the Northern Ireland Protocol had been resolved. A condition of Sinn Féin involvement might also be Westminster legislation on the Irish language, which has yet to appear.

Some parties believe broader changes to the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland are necessary. In its Assembly manifesto, the Alliance Party proposed that cross-community voting in the Assembly should be replaced with a weighted majority system, free from community designations. It also argued the Executive should be formed by voluntary rather than compulsory coalition, decided through negotiation between parties and subject to a vote in the Assembly. Finally, it proposed renaming the First and deputy First Ministers “Joint First Ministers”, terminology already used by the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

About the author: David Torrance is the Northern Ireland specialist at the House of Commons Library

Image: Stormont by Son of Groucho, CC BY 2.0

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