The News Letter made reference on January 1 to the New Year message from the DUP leader, Arlene Foster.
In it she observes “I and my Party remain ready to return to government immediately without the need for any pre-conditions to be met”, before reaming off a number of reasons for not doing so.
However it can be credibly argued that – in theory – the only obstacle preventing Unionists from setting up the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly is the DUP.
At its heart politics is just a numbers game and it’s just a matter of applying game theory as and when it suits and, as Robin Swann observes in his own New Year message, “there needs to be a recalibration of politics in Northern Ireland if anything is to change”. That observation provides the germ of an idea.
The last Assembly elections resulted in 28 DUP MLAs, 27 Sinn Féin, 12 SDLP 12, 10 UUP and eight Alliance.
Under normal circumstances this would lead to a DUP First Minister and a Sinn Féin Deputy First Minster, but if the latter will not nominate then this leads to a two-year impasse. What to do?
Of interest here is that under the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 the “nominating officer of the largest political party of the largest political designation shall nominate a member of the Assembly to be the First Minister”, and “nominating officer of the largest political party of the second largest political designation shall nominate a member of the Assembly to be the deputy First Minister”.
In simple terms what is required to set up the Executive is for the 28 DUP MLAs to cross the floor of the Assembly to designate as ‘nationalist’. Then, as the largest party in what is now the largest designation (‘nationalist’), they could nominate Arlene Foster as First Minister.
That would leave the UUP as the largest party in the second largest designation (‘unionist’) to nominate Robin Swann as Deputy First Minister.
The remaining departmental positions would be allocated then as per normal. The current impasse would be broken.
But, as in all the best movies, there is a twist to this plot.
I have been informed that DUP MLAs have already designated as ‘unionist’ in the roll for this current NI Assembly and current regulations limit redesignation. However, there are solutions available.
Firstly, given the two-year hiatus, the DUP Speaker Robin Newton could justifiably ask MLAs to reaffirm both their designations and their political party affiliations, especially given that Fianna Fáil and Peadar Tóibín are currently on manoeuvres. This would allow DUP MLAs to designate as ‘nationalist’.
Secondly, I am informed that under section 11-15 of Procedure at First Meeting of New Assembly, it is theoretically possible for DUP MLAs to (i) resign from the DUP, (ii) redesignate as nationalist, (iii) rejoin the DUP, and (iv) then redesignate again, or confirm their designation as ‘nationalist’.
There may be other solutions as well. Either way, the current impasse at Stormont can be broken if the will is there.
Dr Bernard J Mulholland, Belfast BT9