How to form an Executive at Stormont…

I had a bit of fun with some correspondents last week on the idea of the “Commission Executive” I floated three weeks ago. Some of the questions posed in fact affect the formation of any Executive, and they probably need to be looked at (at least eventually, given yesterday’s events).

It is worth emphasising – and the media should do more to stress this point – that the fundamental issue currently at Stormont is our inability to form an Executive.

In other words, we have a legislature (the Assembly), but no government (the Executive).

The reason for this is that our system for forming an Executive is extraordinarily restrictive. Firstly, it assigns only three weeks to the task; and secondly, it absolutely requires two particular parties (the largest party and the largest party in the largest different designation)  to enter the Executive even if they agree on nothing otherwise.

Although the origin is understandable, this is a frankly bizarre and unwieldy system and, one day, it will have to change. There is at least a case that that day has now arrived.

The ultimate objective, whenever this change is made, would be quite simple. Any Executive which can be formed and pass a Programme for Government and Budget should be allowed to do so.

Such a system already requires that such an Executive would include power-sharing. To pass a Programme for Government and Budget under the current Petition of Concern system, it would either have to carry a two-thirds majority in a 90-member Assembly or it would have to carry a straight majority in the Assembly as a whole and in both largest designations. I wonder if anyone has even realised this?

The easiest way to legislate for this would probably be to say that if a First Minister and deputy First Minister cannot be nominated under the current system, instead of going to an election, the largest party would be given a certain period of time (probably more than three weeks in practice) to see if it could come to a “Coalition Agreement”. If it could not do so, the next largest party would be entitled to try, and so on, until it was “clear to the Secretary of State that no such Agreement was viable” (or some other similar form of words).

That Agreement would include:

  • the number of Executive Departments and their functions (perhaps the legislation permitting this arrangement should clarify no fewer than six and no more than 10);
  • the names of the Departmental Ministers appointed to head each Department (no more than 10; this would in theory allow for Junior Ministers to be assigned to larger departments);
  • the number and names of no fewer than two and no more than four “Executive Officers” (these would cover the functions of First and deputy First Minister on a rotating basis – there is no reason they should not also be Departmental Ministers);
  • a Programme for Government; and
  • an outline Legislative Programme.

That Coalition Agreement would then be put to the Assembly and, if it passed (noting that to pass it would either require two-thirds assent or majority support from both designations otherwise it could be blocked by a Petition of Concern), the Departmental Ministers and Executive Officers would thus be deemed appointed to form the Executive and carry out the Programmes outlined.

Note also that such an Agreement makes no restrictions on the number or order of Ministers (other than they must stick within the confines noted) – so, for example, a small party from one designation agreeing to form an Executive with a large party from the other could still insist during the negotiations on the same number of seats in the Executive or even on attaining particular Ministries.

I think there would be three more apparently minor amendments needed:

  • Petitions of Concern could not be used to block Executive business (policy motions or legislation) arising from the Programmes outlined in the Coalition Agreement;
  • Ministers so appointed would remain in office until they were replaced (even beyond elections on a caretaker basis, as is perfectly normal elsewhere); and
  • there would be a requirement to pass an annual Budget.

This latter is particularly important, as failure to pass a Budget (also subject to Petition of Concern) would be constitute a vote of no confidence in the Executive – and indeed would be how no confidence would be expressed by the Assembly (noting that the opportunity would thus arise annually). A vote of no confidence in the Budget would then return the process to the beginning (an attempt at nominating a First and deputy First Minister and then Ministers by d’Hondt; attempts at a Coalition Agreement; then an election).

In other words, it would all be quite normal – but would still have the relevant checks and balances in place to ensure cross-community consent.

Just a thought!

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