The 5 May Assembly election may well be a critical moment for post-Agreement politics in Northern Ireland. The law and procedures of the Assembly provide a set of ‘known knowns’ to prepare for; few are straightforward, but none need send us hurtling into stalemate or crisis.
First things first: the new cohort of MLAs will take their seats, each one designating as “Unionist”, “Nationalist” or “Other”. Their first official task as a legislature is to elect a Presiding Officer (speaker) for the Assembly, followed by the Principal Deputy Speaker (a position created in 2011 in a SF/DUP deal), and two deputy speakers. The votes for the speakers’ offices are taken on a cross-community basis. Since 2007, the DUP and Sinn Féin have swopped the Speaker post between them; so it would be the DUP’s ‘turn’ next. This would most naturally have gone to Christopher Stalford as the Principal Deputy Speaker but for his untimely death. Given that the previous Speaker Alex Maskey is not standing in this election, this means that the incoming Speaker and Principal Deputy Speaker are likely to be completely new to the role.
The next piece of business is the nomination of the First and deputy First Ministers. According to the Northern Ireland Act (1998) as amended after the St Andrews Agreement (2006), these positions are given to the largest party of the largest designation and the largest party of the second largest designation respectively – except for a situation in which the party with the most seats is not from the largest political designation. In such a case, the First Minister is nominated by the largest party (judged by seats held), and the deputy First Minister by the largest party of the largest designation. In the event that two parties hold the same number of seats, the First Minister is nominated by the party with the most first preference votes.
Although MLAs designated as “Other” could in principle nominate the First Minister or deputy First Minister, there is currently little sign that “Other” will form the largest political designation or that Alliance is likely to hold the greatest number of seats. So notwithstanding a potential electoral earthquake, we can expect one of four scenarios (Figure 1). In each quadrant of this diagram I depict the largest party (and thus the one to nominate the First Minister) together with the largest designation. It is just coincidence that this diagram resembles the template for a ‘paper fortune teller’ of the kind that brings much amusement to future-curious school children.
Scenario A is the one that has been the situation since 2007 but this cannot be presumed for 2022. The 2017 election saw Unionists lose their absolute majority in terms of seat proportion, and Sinn Féin came within a seat of matching the DUP. Scenario B is not the most likely either, although in this case Nationalism would gain from UUP and TUV losing out in the DUP’s quest to remain largest party. The likelihood of Scenario C probably centres on the SDLP doing well enough to secure Nationalist as the largest designation. The polling to date would indicate Scenario D to be on balance the most probable at this point, but this could be scuppered by transfers between the centre ground parties (Alliance, SDLP and UUP) rather than within political designations. Anyway, there are a few long weeks of election campaigning to come yet.
The primary purpose of this diagram is to highlight that, whatever the election outcome, the formation of the new Executive will face different political challenges in different scenarios. In Scenario A, because DUP success and a Unionist majority would be interpreted quite simply as a vote against the Protocol, the lever for forming the Executive would not be in the hands of NI politicians. In Scenario B, DUP success would be read as anti-Protocol and pro-Union and Nationalist success as pro-Protocol and pro-Unity. Both sides would come to the table for Executive formation feeling emboldened. Finding common interest and averting runaway polarisation between the two is a challenge the British and Irish governments have managed together before; could they do so now?
In Scenario C, the pressure would be felt most acutely within Unionism, which would have been so divided as to have lost both the largest party and the largest designation positions. Would the response of Unionist parties be characterised more by recrimination or by realism? Lastly, in Scenario D, we could have the most pressure on the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the principle of power-sharing itself. In theory this need not be complicated – the DUP could present this as a ‘win’ for Unionism (as largest designation), take up the deputy First Minister position and use it to the full. In practice, of course, it is unlikely to rush to such a decision.
The MEPoC Act (2022) arising from New Decade, New Approach means that it need not have to. There could be four periods of six weeks for the parties to work these things out, whilst the ministers from the previous Assembly will continue on in position. This provides a certain degree of cover for civil servants and MLAs to continue on with business as far as possible (within the constraints rolled over from the lack of FM and dFM). But it also adds an additional layer of complexity, the intensity of which will also depend on which quadrant we find ourselves on 6 May.
But ultimately, in this fortune teller game: no matter how fast the fingers move or how many choices made, the options for now are already written in orange and green, and pressed together in indelible proximity. Unless, that is, a newly volatile electorate tears the whole game apart and votes Other.