Committee recommends ‘supermajority’ speaker election to restore Stormont

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The DUP continues to boycott stormont over brexit

By Jonathan McCambridge (PA)

Stormont rules should be urgently reformed so that a speaker can be elected by a two-thirds majority of MLAs, a Westminster committee has recommended.

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has also proposed that the same threshold should be used to elect first and deputy first ministers.

As part of a raft of proposals which the committee said would assist in restoring and stabilising the powersharing institutions, it also recommended rebranding the first minister roles and making them open to politicians from beyond the largest unionist and nationalist parties.

The DUP has been blocking powersharing at Stormont for more than a year and a half in protest at the internal UK trade barriers created by Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.

The party has been involved in negotiations with the Government about the Windsor Framework, which reformed the protocol, and is seeking further assurances, by way of legislation, over Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market.

Senior civil servants have been left in charge of devolved departments and the Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris had to intervene to set a budget.

During the lengthy suspension, the DUP has blocked several attempts to elect a Speaker, which is required before ministers can be nominated to form an executive.

The Westminster committee has been carrying out an investigation into the effectiveness of the institutions of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement; the historic peace deal which created the Stormont Assembly.

Within current rules, votes from a majority of MLAs within both the nationalist and unionist traditions are needed to secure the posts of speaker, and first and deputy first ministers.

During its evidence, the committee heard that with the growth of the proportion of Northern Ireland society identifying as neither unionist nor nationalist since the agreement, “supermajority” voting would “effectively equate to cross-community consent”.

Among the measures it recommends in its report are calls for the UK Government to urgently reform the Assembly speaker election rules so that a candidate can be elected by a two-thirds supermajority of MLAs.

It recommends the same method should be used to elect first and deputy first ministers.

The report adds that, in recognition of their equal status, the roles should be rebranded as “joint first ministers” with the position open to any two MLAs of any two parties rather than just the largest parties.

Under current rules, Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill is entitled to claim the position of first minister as her party emerged with the largest number of MLAs following last year’s Assembly elections.

The committee said the changes would require consultation with the Irish Government as co-guarantors to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, as well as the parties of Northern Ireland.

It said that the 1998 Northern Ireland Act that came from the agreement, which enshrines power-sharing government and devolution in Northern Ireland, would also need to be changed.

Committee chairman Sir Robert Buckland said: “When Stormont collapses critical public services are cast adrift.

“Health, education, policing; all are feeling the strain while important decisions go unmade, and the people of Northern Ireland suffer.

“More stringent safeguards are needed to protect against the cycle of restoration and collapse that has dogged Stormont.”

He added: “The short-term measures we’ve proposed will shore up the stability of Stormont increasing the incentives to keep the institutions moving and enabling the Assembly to run without an executive in place.”

“In the longer run, we feel that a full independent review into the effectiveness of the institutions of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement should be conducted with input from all stakeholders.

“This should include the North-South and East-West elements, but a fully functioning Stormont is the foundation on which the rest stands.”

The Stormont powersharing institutions have been collapsed on several occasions previous to the current political impasse, including by Sinn Fein in 2017 in protest at the DUP handling of a green energy scheme.

On that occasion the institutions remained dormant for three years.

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