What happens after the election?
A new Assembly of 90 MLAs was elected on 2 March 2017 (reduced in size from 108 MLAs). The election was an unexpected, ‘snap’ election, triggered by the resignation of deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, on 9 January.
The results of the 2 March election are as follows, with change from May 2016 election in brackets:
Democratic Unionist Party 28 (-10)
Sinn Féin 27 (-1)
Social Democratic and Labour Party 12
Ulster Unionist Party 10 (-6)
Alliance Party of NI 8
Green Party 2
Traditional Unionist Voice 1
People before Profit Alliance 1 (-1)
Independent 1 (Claire Sugden retained her seat in East Londonderry)
Turnout was 64.8% (compared with 54.9% in 2016). Twenty seven women were elected, compared to 30 in 2016. However, with a smaller Assembly, this represents a percentage increase from 27.8% in to 30%.
What happens next?
The rules state that the Assembly must hold its first meeting within 8 working days of an election and this is scheduled for Monday 13 March.
At the first meeting, Members usually sign the Register and elect a new Speaker (a decision that requires cross-community support from unionists and nationalists). However, the election of a Speaker will not take place on this occasion. The current Speaker, Robin Newton, will take the Chair.
The Assembly then has 14 days from the first meeting to appoint the Executive Committee of Ministers in charge of the 9 Government Departments for Northern Ireland. The next meeting is therefore expected to take place on 27 March. On the Order Paper that day will be:
The election of the Speaker and deputy Speakers (requires cross-community support);
Nominations for First and deputy First Minister. The largest party in the Assembly nominates the First Minister (DUP) and the largest party on the other side of the community nominates the deputy First Minister (SF). Their department is called the Executive Office and it co-ordinates the work of the whole Executive*;
Election of the Minister of Justice (requires cross-community support);
Appointment of the remaining 7 departmental Ministers using D’Hondt (see note below)
Appointment of Chairs and Deputy Chairs of Committees, also by D’Hondt
Appointment of the members of the Business Committee – Chief Whips of the 5 main parties plus a representative of the smaller parties. The Business Committee is chaired by the Speaker and set the agenda for plenary meetings.
*The First and deputy First Minister will also appoint 2 Junior Ministers to assist them in the Executive Office.
D’Hondt: A mathematical formula, called d’Hondt, is used to appoint departmental Ministers, apart from the Justice Minister. Parties’ entitlement to Ministers depends on the number of seats won in the Assembly election. The latest election results mean that the DUP will be entitled to 3 Ministers, Sinn Fein, 2 and the SDLP and UUP, one Minister each. However, any party entitled to a Minister may ‘opt out’ of the Executive and form an Official Opposition. The UUP and SDLP did so following the election in May 2016, when new arrangements were put in place to facilitate this. It is not clear if they will do so again.
The Executive Committee is, in effect, the government of Northern Ireland. The Ministers in charge of the 9 government departments are responsible for developing policy and legislation to improve public services and the local economy. They agree a draft Programme for Government, which sets out the government’s plans and a budget which allocates money to the departments. The Assembly scrutinises these and may suggest changes before approving.
Northern Ireland Executive Departments
- The Executive Office (EO)
- Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA)
- Department for Communities (DfC)
- Department of Education (DE)
- Department for the Economy (DfE)
- Department of Finance (DoF)
- Department of Health (DoH)
- Department for Infrastructure (DfI)
- Department of Justice (DoJ)
If the main parties cannot agree to form the Executive by the deadline date of 4pm on 27 March, the law states that the UK Government’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire MP, must call another election, ‘within a reasonable period of time’. The power to suspend the Assembly was repealed following the St Andrews Agreement (October 2006), so new legislation would have to be passed through Westminster for this to happen.