If you read the newspapers or read most of social media, you would imagine that what we are waiting for is a “Deal” which delivers a functioning devolved Executive almost immediately. In fact, many MLAs probably think the same thing. Yet, as noted explicitly on The Detail and implicitly on EamonnMallie.com, that is probably not how it will play out in practice.
Let us return first to the structural problem (not least because even people identified as “political correspondents” can miss it). There is no functioning Assembly because there is no Executive (Northern Ireland’s system is peculiar in requiring an Executive before there is an Assembly) – or actually specifically because there are no Executive Ministers.
So, in principle, what is required is an agreement between the two big parties to allow a First Minister and deputy First Minister to be appointed, and thus Executive Ministers to be put in post.
This may not be a conceivable way forward, however. In principle, for example, a “Deal” will require legislation – in some cases, surely, legislation which has not yet been drafted. It would not be wholly unreasonable for the various parties to want to see what is drafted, but that would take time. Thus immediate and full restoration may not be viable – as it really would be a debacle to set it all up only to have to bring it down again.
Let us then risk some assumptions.
Firstly, a “Deal” requires the agreement of two particular parties who do not currently get on well, and thus what will be sought is an all-party Executive (i.e. with 4-5 parties). So the “Deal” cannot be agreed by the two parties alone; an early stage of one maybe, but not the whole thing.
Secondly, strictly speaking a functioning Assembly requires as Executive (i.e. Ministers appointed) but not necessarily a functioning Executive Committee. There have been several occasions already in the history of the Assembly where parties have withdrawn from Executive Committee meetings without resigning their Executive ministries. Certainly a possible if not even likely stage in the restoration of the institutions will be the appointment of Executive Ministers (thus enabling Departments to function) without the Executive Committee itself formally meeting (thus major decisions and strategic direction will remain delayed). There is at least one breakthrough proposal which specifically states this.
Thirdly, restoration requires legislation in any case, and if legislation is passed it could enable a gradual restoration of the institutions in any case. As in 2006, the Assembly could begin to meet to discuss procedures and motions and conceivably even to scrutinise Departmental actions without yet re-assuming legislative powers (this has happened in the past); and it could even assume legislative powers without Ministers in place (this is quite normal elsewhere).
A “Deal”, in other words, may be gradual while trust is restored. After all, if the parties don’t bring their voters with them (at least for the most part), the deal won’t stick in any case.