Now that the elections are over the N.I. Assembly is required to meet within eight days of the election. It is likely to sit on Tuesday or Thursday of next week. Given the DUP’s present stance the formation of a new executive could take a number of months under laws designed to keep Stormont functioning in the event of a stalemate before an executive is formed. It’s a Stormont or stalemate situation.
Failure to form an Assembly could result in another election next winter after the DUP said they would not enter the executive without changes to the Northern Ireland protocol. This is a possible outcome because the DUP has refused to give any commitment to nominate a deputy first minister if it was in second place as it is. It has also stated that it won’t return to an executive while the Irish Sea border checks remain.
There is also the unspoken symbolism of even symbolically playing second fiddle to Sinn Fein which would be a very bitter pill for Geoffrey Donaldson and indeed the entire unionist community after a hundred years of dominance. It will take a lot of sugar coating to change that.
A Failsafe Attempt
Amendments made to the Northern Ireland Act in February were designed to prevent the assembly collapsing like it did in 2017. The elected representatives have up to four six-week windows to form an executive, which is 24 weeks in all. If all goes according to plan a new executive is formed its members are appointed to cabinet like roles. The 90 elected members sign the register declaring whether they are unionist, nationalist or “other” under the power-sharing system. However Northern Ireland is not a place where all goes to plan.
A Co-Sociational Assembly
The Northern Ireland Assembly is a known as a “co-sociational” political system which designed for states such as Northern Ireland with major internal divisions. In this system the party with the largest number of seats nominates the First Minister in this case Sinn Fein and the second largest party a Deputy First Minister in this case the DUP. The posts of First Minister and Deputy First Minister are equal despite the apparent connotations of rank. Elected members can change party allegiance up to the time they sign the register. The DUP for example could try to lure a number of other Unionists or independents into their camp as there are so few seats between them and Sinn Fein. That could change the balance of the assembly in favour of the DUP giving them the First Minister role. With symbolism so important in Northern Ireland such a move is not outside the bounds of possibility.
Once a First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are nominated, the additional ministers are appointed under the d’Hondt formula, a system which allocates ministers to department according to the relative strength of each elected party. The justice minister is the one exception who must be appointed with cross-party support. The executive can now drafts a programme for government and a budget, both of which must be approved by the assembly of elected members.
The Last Straw a new Election
If an executive is not formed in the allocated six months the Northern Ireland secretary would then be legally obliged under the Northern Ireland Act to name a date for a second election. That election has to take place within 12 weeks of its announcement. Elections alone won’t break the looming Unionist deadlock. There will be a battle royal between the DUP and the British government. Sinn Fein will be waiting in the wings savouring the taste of victory while enjoying the spectacle and making reconciliatory sounds and gestures knowing that the tide is running in their favour.
Unionism has been chanting “No Surrender” since the siege of Derry in 1689. The siege lasted 105 days from 18 April to 1 August 1689. It and the Battle of the Boyne are commemorated yearly by the Protestant community. Their Unionists descendants will not play second fiddle to what they regard as their traditional enemy without one last great face saving gesture or an acceptable major concession. Face must be saved and Geoffrey Donaldson knows it or his political career and the DUP’s future is doomed. It’s all to play for.