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Alliance endorses Bill that will see it lose one of its ministries

By Liam Clarke

The Justice Minister David Ford has welcomed a proposed new law that could deprive his own party of a second Stormont ministry.

The Draft Northern Ireland Bill, unveiled by the Secretary of State yesterday, will also end the ‘double-jobbing’ of MLAs who are MPs.

Another provision in the Bill refuses a request from the DUP and Sinn Fein to extend the Assembly term by one year from 2015 to 2016.

But that decision may be reviewed “if the Executive were able to demonstrate clearly that an extension of their term would allow them to deliver more on key priorities such as rebalancing the economy and addressing sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland”.

This gives the Secretary of State leverage over the big parties.

But one of the main planks in the planned legislation means that Alliance would lose a ministerial position if it got the same results in the next Assembly election as it did last time.

Most Stormont ministries are allocated under a complex mathematical formula known as d’Hondt, which allows parties to pick departments in sequence.

Because Alliance was the only party acceptable to both Sinn Fein and the DUP, the Justice role was allocated on a cross-community vote requiring the support of a majority of unionist and nationalist MLAs.

Since Alliance already held the Department of Employment and Learning under d’Hondt, it controversially ended up with two ministries — when its share of the vote would have normally only entitled it to one. Now the Secretary of State has proposed that Justice should be allocated immediately after the First and Deputy First Ministers.

It means that if a party accepted the post, it would lose one of its choices under d’Hondt.

Mr Ford said the draft law reflected an offer Alliance made over a year ago, stating: “The reality is that whoever gets Justice would have an extra ministry under present arrangements.

“If Justice is still to be subject to the separate cross-community vote of the Assembly, it is only logical that it should count against the d’Hondt allocation. It is the fair way of doing it.” He added: “We are expecting significantly fewer departments —perhaps seven rather than 11 after the next election — so a lot of things will be up in the air.”

Another proposal is to prevent MPs holding office as Stormont MLAs from 2015.

Three current MPs will be affected — DUP East Antrim MP and Finance Minister Sammy Wilson, South Belfast MP and SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell, and Gregory Campbell of the DUP, who is MP for East Londonderry.

Another section extends the widely criticised system by which political donations are kept secret until at least October 2014, although it will permit details to be published with the donor’s agreement.

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