We perhaps should not blame Arlene Foster for calling herself “Leader of Northern Ireland” when the BBC itself has been calling her “First Minister of our country”. She is in fact neither, and it’s an important distinction.
The office of “Prime Minister of the United Kingdom” is one which is traditionally recognised by convention rather than law – the very title “Prime Minister” did not appear in any law until 1939. It continues to attract no salary (the salary being paid instead to the “First Lord of the Treasury”, who has been the same person for the past century). Initially the title was understood to mean the Minister without portfolio who chaired the Cabinet – “primus inter pares” (first among equals). Since the War it has become much more of a Leadership role, with convention now dictating that the Prime Minister may overrule other Ministers.
Scottish devolved government was set up with a “First Minister” who held much the same role at devolved level – not just Chair, but actually Director. There, the Scottish Executive (now Government) was set up as a separate body from the Scottish Parliament just as the UK Cabinet is separate from the UK Parliament, and Directorates were set up within it (for Education, Health, Justice etc).
Wales and Northern Ireland, however, were set up differently. In their case, the Executive is a Committee of the Assembly. The role of “First Minister” (shared in effect by two Ministers in Northern Ireland) is much more the older one – Chair of the Committee of Ministers. There is no overrule function.
Thus, as the outset, Scotland had a “First Minister of Scotland” but Northern Ireland and Wales had a “First Minister of the Assembly” – a clear distinction in title for a clear distinction in function.
Wales changed its system after a referendum in 2011 and now its Government, as in Scotland, is a separate entity from its Assembly. Its First Minister now has a role more akin to Scotland’s.
Northern Ireland has not gone that way, however, and it is an important distinction. In Northern Ireland, unlike in Scotland or Wales, each Department is an independent legal entity. Its Ministers are thus Heads of Department and are responsible for that Department (unlike their equivalents in Scotland and Wales, now known as Cabinet Secretaries, who are part of a single entity known as the “Government”).
The role of First and deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland, therefore, has no “leadership” function beyond that of the Executive Office itself (whose functions are now extremely limited). The role is in fact a representative and a chairing one. In other words, unlike in Scotland and Wales, the First Minister(s) in Northern Ireland are not responsible for the conduct of the devolved Government as a whole, only for their own Office and the Executive Committee itself.
It is to be hoped that Arlene Foster understands this, as it not only means that she is not responsible for other Departments now (and is thus not “Leader of Northern Ireland”), but she was responsible for the conduct and decisions of any Department of which she was Minister while she was Minister.
And, at the very least, we should expect the joint Chair of the Executive Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly to understand what her role is – and isn’t.