Northern Ireland Assembly: “New Decade, New Approach”

On Thursday night (9 January 2020), the Northern Ireland Office published the text of a deal to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland. There has been neither a fully-functioning Assembly nor Executive in Northern Ireland for more than three years.

The deal covers various policy issues, but this Insight examines proposals to reform the Assembly and Executive

Transparency and accountability

Annex A to the agreement proposes a number of changes, largely in response to matters arising from the Renewable Heat Incentive controversy. The procedure for ministerial declaration of interests will be strengthened, while the responsibility of Ministers for the “management, conduct and discipline” of their special advisers will be included in the Special Adviser Code of Conduct and incorporated into the Ministerial Code.

A requirement to record ministerial meetings, meanwhile, will be included in the Civil Service Code, while any “substantive discussions with external organisations” at which no officials are present will have to be promptly declared to the relevant Northern Ireland Department. Details of such meetings, as well as relevant gifts and hospitality, will also be published.

Three Commissioners for Ministerial Standards will be appointed by the First Minister and deputy First Minister, in addition to the existing Assembly Commissioner for Standards. Findings from any investigations will not include recommendations regarding sanctions, which will be a matter for the relevant party and “Assembly process”.

The Petition of Concern

The Petition of Concern has long been a controversial aspect of Assembly business, with some arguing that the voting mechanism had been used as a “veto”. The parties have agreed that its use should be reduced “and returned to its intended purpose”, which was to protect minorities. Petitions will, in future, only be used in the “most exceptional circumstances”. In particular, the First Minister and deputy First Minister will not sign a Petition during this Assembly “mandate” (or term).

Other changes will be given effect in Assembly Standing Orders or in legislation. Petitions must be “signed in person” at the Bills Office and while the threshold will remain at 30 MLAs, a Petition can only be triggered by members from two or more parties and will trigger a 14-day period of “consideration”. Petitions in respect of Executive and Private Members’ Bills will apply only after their Second Stage. Ministers signing a Petition “in accordance” with an Executive decision may “breach” paragraph f of their Pledge of Office.

Sustainability of institutions

The agreement also includes measures to “better withstand political difficulties, challenges and disagreements”, or in other words, avoid another prolonged period without fully-functioning devolved institutions in Northern Ireland.

A Party Leaders’ forum will be established to facilitate “early warning of any issues which might cause future political tension and disagreements”. This forum will not have any executive authority. An Executive Sub-Committee on Brexit will also be created. The parties have agreed to amend the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Act 2016 to provide that a party can join the Official Opposition up to two years following the formation of an Executive. They “recognise” that additional funding should be made available to opposition parties.

The UK Government, meanwhile, will amend the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to extend the time for the appointment of a First Minister and a deputy First Minister from 7 and 14 days respectively to 6 weeks in each case (following the resignation of either, or an Assembly election). If this proves insufficient, then parties will have a maximum further 18 weeks to appoint a First Minister and deputy First Minister. If no appointment is made at the end of that period then the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will be “under a duty” to propose a date for an election.

Provision will also be made for Executive Ministers to remain in office beyond polling day to allow for “greater continuity of decision making”, although they would be unable to take “significant or controversial” decisions. In the case of a First Minister/deputy First Minister resignation, the Assembly and its Committees will continue to exercise their responsibilities until the Assembly is formally dissolved.

Statutory Office of Identity and Cultural Expression

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 will be amended by three Assembly Bills to establish a statutory Office of Identity and Cultural Expression and Commissioners for the Irish Language and “the Ulster Scots/Ulster British tradition”. An Ad-Hoc Assembly Committee will also consider creating a Bill of Rights “faithful to the stated intention” of the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.  

UK Government commitments to Northern Ireland

Annex A to the agreement sets out specific UK Government commitments to Northern Ireland. These include an ongoing review of the reformed Petition of Concern mechanism; legislation to address legacy issues within 100 days; UK-wide legislation to “further incorporate” the Armed Forces Covenant into law and the appointment of a Northern Ireland Veterans’ Commissioner. The UK Government will also work alongside the restored Executive to “mark the centenary of Northern Ireland in 2021 in a spirit of mutual respect, inclusiveness and reconciliation”. Ulster Scots will be recognised as a “national minority”, while there will be three additional “designated flag flying days”.

Financial support and scrutiny  

As with previous agreements, the UK Government has also agreed to provide “additional financial support”, although this will only apply if the Executive is restored. This will cover immediate support for the health service (including nurses’ pay), public service investment, “turbocharging” infrastructure delivery and addressing Northern Ireland’s “unique circumstances”. The Irish Government will be providing separate financial package.

An Independent Fiscal Council will be established in Northern Ireland by July 2020. This will provide an annual assessment of the Executive’s revenue streams and spending proposals, while from 2021/22 the Executive will put in place multi-year budgets. The UK Government will also consider “implications for the use of public money in Northern Ireland” following publication of the RHI Inquiry Report.
Quarterly reviews and implementation of UK Government funding provided under the agreement will be overseen by a UK Government-Northern Ireland Executive Joint Board convened by the Secretary of State and which includes the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

David Torrance is a Senior Library Clerk at the House of Commons Library, specialising in devolution and the constitution.