UK ‘interested’ in creating joint First Ministers in Northern Ireland
The UK government is “interested” in creating joint First Ministers in Northern Ireland as part of a long-term strategy to improve the functioning of the devolved administration, officials say.
The division of power between pro-British Unionist politicians and nationalists who want a united Ireland has been difficult for years and the May 5 election to the Stormont assembly looks likely to put them further to the test.
A Lucid Talk poll released on Sunday puts nationalist Sinn Féin seven points ahead of the largest unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party, and on track to inflict a historic first defeat on parties seeking to maintain union with the United Kingdom in a region created a century ago. there is for Protestants.
This would almost certainly give Sinn Féin the right to appoint the prime minister, a post still held by a trade unionist since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of conflict in the region.
A UK official said the government “is interested in the idea [of a joint first minister] and is not antipathetic to the argument, but it would require proper negotiation, given the implications of the Good Friday Agreement”.
Officials insisted that any talks would not be in response to a possible Sinn Féin victory, but rather in the context of a review of devolution around the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement the year next.
The first and deputy first ministers currently have identical powers, but Jon Tonge, a politics professor at the University of Liverpool, said: “Status matters.”
The high stakes of maintaining the delicate balance of power-sharing were heightened on Friday when a bomb threat forced Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney mid-term to abandon a peacebuilding event in Belfast.
The decision was made after a van was hijacked at gunpoint by suspected loyalist paramilitaries, loaded with a device and its driver forced to the scene.
The incident was a hoax, but as campaigning kicks off this week for the election, the UVF, a loyalist paramilitary group, is reportedly planning to step up the targeting of Irish politicians.
Regardless of the outcome on May 5, putting an executive in place could take months because under new election rules parties have 24 weeks to form one after the election.
The DUP, which removed its prime minister from administration in February in a row over post-Brexit trade deals, has refused to return until its Brexit demands have been met. Nor has he committed to serving on a Sinn Féin-led executive.
Stormont has crumbled several times in recent years and the idea of restructuring the administration to create joint prime ministers has been floated previously unsuccessfully by the Centrist Alliance and nationalist SDLP parties.
Tonge said “the optics would be terrible” if Sinn Féin won the election and secured the premiership. “It would look like a desperate move to water down the Prime Minister’s position,” he said. But Alliance Deputy Leader Stephen Farry said it was an urgent issue and not just semantics.
“I proposed a First Amendment in the House of Commons to change the law on this, which was taken up in the House of Lords. In the end, the government resisted change. . . but the matter must be reconsidered after the election of the assembly,” he said.
The DUP wants forced power-sharing to be replaced by voluntary coalitions. “The way to make Stormont operational is to remove the shadow from the protocol,” a DUP official said.
But John O’Dowd, a Sinn Féin member of the Northern Ireland assembly, said it was up to the people to decide who should be prime minister.
“Will the DUP respect the ballot boxes and the democratic will of the people,” he said. “Or are they just doing democracy on their own terms?”