It seems the two parties who have to do a deal at Stormont are getting a little more serious about actually doing one.
Here are some important technicalities around the Assembly’s operation which need sorted at this stage:
- Appointment of the Speaker – this should be by secret ballot of MLAs from nominees who are members of party groups which provide neither the First Minister nor deputy First Minister, accompanied by two additional secret ballots to elect a Principal Deputy Speaker and a Deputy Speaker from different parties (and designations for as long as these address); and the position should then rotate annually for the Assembly term;
- Ministers remain in office until replaced – whereas currently Ministers cease to hold office on Election Day, they should in fact remain in office (at least in a caretaker capacity, perhaps on reduced pay) until new Ministers are appointed post-Election;
- Assembly can meet – after an Election, the Assembly should be able to meet without having to appoint a First Minister and deputy First Minister;
- No Two-Week Rule – if a First Minister and deputy First Minister cannot be appointed within two weeks of the first post-Election Assembly meeting, the Secretary of State should be entitled to enable the nominees to keep talking towards agreeing a common Programme (rather than having to call another election);
- No One-Week Rule – likewise, the resignation of a First Minister or deputy First Minister should not obligatorily be followed by an Assembly Election (although that should remain an option); and
- restriction of Petition of Concern solely to the overall Programme for Government, Legislative Programme or Budget; or to issues of identity, equality or constitution not contained in those.
Of course, in the longer (but not that much longer) term, in the event of resignation of First Minister or deputy First Minister (or failure to appoint within a reasonable time of an election), the Secretary of State should be entitled to ask other parties if they are willing to form a voluntary, power-sharing coalition capable of passing a Programme and Budget (meaning in effect they would need a majority of those voting and no more than a third overall against, thus demonstrating a reasonable cross-community consensus via a qualified majority). This system should be in place before the next election.
In the longer run, the particular arrangements for appointment of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and election of the Justice Minister should be abandoned. Ultimately this should all be done via voluntary coalition commanding qualified majority arrangements, as above.
These are all technical, but they are essential to ensure we are never again left entirely without devolved executive authority and legislative scrutiny.