What happens next?

In February of this year Paul Given resigned his post as First Minister, yet the Assembly continued to meet as normal and Minister’s continued to run their departments. Why was this allowed to happen? In the past when a First or deputy First Minister resigned, the Executive ceased to function.

In 2017, Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minster. Instead of government continuing, an election was called, followed by a three-year hiatus as the parties negotiated to reestablish the government. So why were things different when the First Minister resigned this year?

Following the New Decade; New Deal agreement in early 2020, the rules changed. The Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 allows for Government (without an Executive) to continue, that means if there is no First and deputy First Minister in post, things can go on. These new rules also change what happens after an election.

Following the 2003 Assembly election no Government could be formed. The DUP had become the largest Unionist party and refused to nominate a First Minister. This led to four years without an Assembly or Executive, and Northern Ireland was left with no Ministers in post.

Under the new rules, Ministers go back to the Departments they served after an election (if an MLA who was a Minister fails to get elected then their party nominate a substitute). This means Departments can still run, but no new decisions can be made. Ministers will simply implement old spending commitments and pre-agreed policy. The new rules allow up to 24 weeks to get the Executive up and running.  This means, following the 5th May poll, it could be October before any First of deputy First Minister is elected, but the Assembly and Government Departments will continue to function as normal. Ministers will still answer MLAs questions and MLAs will have an opportunity to introduce their own legislation, free from the Executive monopolising Assembly time.

The question that remains is – what happens in October if the parties cannot agree? Well, that’s where the new rules are much the same as the old ones! The Secretary of State must call an election. History tells us that Secretaries of State are usually reluctant to hold another election only to produce more stalemate and negotiations, so it is far from certain as to what will happen this.

What we do know is the rules are different. Only time will tell if the new rules produce different results.// Tim Cairns CARE Senior Policy Officer


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