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The Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill 2021-22 was introduced to the House of Commons on 12 May 2021. The Commons is due to consider House of Lords amendments on the afternoon of Monday 7 February 2022.

The Bill will implement aspects of the January 2020 New Decade, New Approach agreement, which relate to the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. This includes reforming the process for Executive formation and elections to the Assembly, updating the Ministerial Code of Conduct and altering the Petition of Concern mechanism.

Appointing Ministers 

Between January 2017 and January 2020, Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions were not fully functioning. This followed the resignation of deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness. One intention of the Bill is to prevent a situation in which Northern Ireland is left without devolved government for another prolonged period.

By law, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is required to propose a date for an election if Northern Ireland Ministers have not been appointed within 14 days of an Assembly election, or if the posts of First and/or deputy First Minister have become vacant and remain unfilled after seven days.

The Bill would replace these time limits with up to four six-week periods for appointing Northern Ireland Ministers. It would also allow Ministers to remain in office following an election for up to 24 weeks, and for up to 48 weeks if the First or deputy First Minister stop holding office (for example, through resignation).

Petition of Concern

A mechanism known as the Petition of Concern will also be altered by the Bill. Currently, this enables 30 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) to force a matter before the Assembly to require cross-community support  (that is, a majority not only of all MLAs voting, but also a majority of those “designated” Nationalist and Unionist).

There are concerns that the Petition of Concern has departed from its intended use. The Bill will add a new 14-day consideration period before a valid petition can be confirmed. It will also require petitioners to come from more than one Northern Ireland political party; prohibit the Assembly’s Speaker or their deputies from signing a petition; and prevent its use on anything relating to the conduct of an MLA or on the second stage of a bill.

Code of Conduct

Finally, the Bill would make changes to the Northern Ireland Ministerial Code of Conduct. These include provisions around the treatment of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, public appointments and the use of official resources and information management.

As “excepted” matters, none of these aspects of the New Decade, New Approach agreement can be legislated for in the Northern Ireland Assembly and therefore require legislation at Westminster.  Together the reforms will make significant changes to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (as amended).

The text of the Bill and Explanatory Notes are available on the Bill pages on the Parliamentary website.

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