Belfast Telegraph

An act of Commons haste that unionists will repent at leisure

DUP MPS who balk at a Sinn Fein First Minister should reflect on their, part in bringing the day a step closer, argues Michael Shilliday

Unionism has been presented with an acute problem as a result of the rise of the TUV in the European election last year.

The rules of the game state that whichever political party emerges from an Assembly election with the most seats gets the right to nominate the First Minister.

While it is arguable that, if that party were the SDLP, there would be little problem, the prospect of Martin McGuinness in the titular top job, even if it is legally identical to that of Deputy First Minister, is one that is understandably unpalatable to unionists.

However, the current rules of the game are comparatively new.

The relevant legislation is section 16 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. This section originally had a total of six lines that governed the election in just three subsections.

The procedure was that any two MLAs were to be jointly nominated by two other MLAs for the offices and the Assembly had to approve the nominations with the support of a majority of unionists and nationalists.

That was a very simple and transparent process. The Assembly had ownership of the offices, could dictate who held them and was at liberty to replace them as it saw fit. If the offices couldn't be filled within a period of six weeks, the Assembly was dissolved and an election was held. However, section 16 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 was pulled apart and substantially changed by section 8 of the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006.

It is now a complicated mess of three parts, with different provisions consequential to each other contained in different parts. The offices of First and Deputy First Minister are now solely in the gift of the leaders of the biggest parties of the two designations.

The Assembly now has no role in the selection, ratification or re-appointment of the First or Deputy First Ministers. Put simply, the leader of the largest single party in the Assembly is asked to nominate the First Minister and the leader of the largest party of the other designation (which is messy in itself, because MLAs and not parties designate as 'unionist' or 'nationalist') is asked to nominate the Deputy First Minister.

The Parliamentary passage of that clause is revealing. The Bill was pushed through the Commons in one day - November 21, 2006 - and through the Lords the next day. The debate in the Commons began at 3:30pm and ended when time ran out, according to the accelerated passage procedures, at 10pm. The Bill had many amendments tabled to it, two of which related to clause 8.

An amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrats would have removed the offending sections of the clause and an amendment tabled by Lady Hermon, together with the Conservative Northern Ireland team, would have required the Assembly to have a say.

The debate of six-and-a-half hours managed only to get through one of the two dozen or so amendments selected, that being a DUP amendment to remove from the Bill the planned date for the 2007 Assembly election, which was rejected. None of the amendments to clause 8 were called.

The passage of the Bill in the Lords is the most revealing, however.

The former First Minister, Lord Trimble, tabled an amendment to clause 8 which was called for debate. His amendment would have, like the Liberal Democrat amendment in the Commons, removed the offending paragraphs from clause 8, and more or less kept the Belfast Agreement-method of electing (as opposed to the two big parties selecting) the First and Deputy First Ministers intact. Lords Browne and Morrow (DUP) voted for the amendment, with the Government majority ensuring that it did not pass.

The next vote, however, was on whether clause 8 should stand as a part of the Bill at all. Voting against keeping the clause in the Bill would have left section 16 of the Northern Ireland Act totally untouched and retained the unionist veto on who was First Minister.

Lords Browne and Morrow voted to keep clause 8 in the Bill. They therefore voted to change the election of the First and Deputy First Minister to the present system. The manifesto they subsequently stood on in the 2007 Assembly election claims the new method as a victory for unionism and the old method as a prize for nationalism.

While the rise of a third unionist party presents unionism with a problem, it should be remembered that the problem was the unnecessary, but deliberate, creation of the same unionism itself.

Ulster Unionist Michael Shilliday blogs at www.sluggerotoole.com

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