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UK Government to discuss Northern Ireland first ministers’ roles after elections

Stormont elections take place this year on 5 May.

Paul Givan and Michelle O’Neill.
Paul Givan and Michelle O’Neill.
Image: Liam McBurney/PA

THE UK GOVERNMENT will speak to political parties in Northern Ireland after Assembly elections this year about the possibility of reforming the roles of the first minister and deputy first minister.

In the UK’s House of Lords, Labour peer Margaret Ritchie called for the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections, and Petitions of Concern) Bill to be amended so the two most senior leadership positions in the Assembly would be equal first ministers, rather than a leader and a deputy.

The proposals came after ministers scrapped proposals to allow “double-jobbing”, which would allow politicians to sit as both a Member of Parliament at Westminster and a Member of the Legislative Assembly at Stormont.

Ritchie told peers her amendment would take divisive rhetoric out of election campaigning, where political parties warn voters that their opponents, on either the unionist or nationalist side, could win power.

Stormont elections take place this year on 5 May, and campaigning is ramping up ahead of the poll.

Northern Ireland minister Jonathan Caine asked Ritchie to withdraw, but said: “These issues aren’t going to go away. After the election, whatever the outcome of that election, I am very – the Government is very happy – to have a discussion with the political parties to test the appetite for any further reforms along the lines that have been suggested in the debate.”

Ritchie withdrew her amendment, but added: “Because the political situation is particularly fragile, and I think others have referred to that particular issue, my fear is that we may not have those political situations in a durable way, in a way that is capable of delivering in Northern Ireland in a post-election sense, because of all of the turmoil, not necessarily wholly but mostly caused by the election and other political issues that have sought to threaten those very institutions.”

Caine confirmed that the Government would scrap its plans to allow “double-jobbing”.

Under the proposal, MPs could have been elected MLAs and remain as MPs until the following general election. Only at that point would they have to vacate their parliamentary seat.

Critics claimed the move was an effort to facilitate DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson’s planned return to Stormont, allowing him to contest the forthcoming Assembly election while remaining MP for Lagan Valley and avoiding a potentially tricky by-election for his party.

Donaldson denied his party had struck a deal with the Government over the issue.

Six Stormont parties wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister on Tuesday calling for the “double-jobbing” plan to be ditched.

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Ahead of a debate on the legislation in the Lords this afternoon, Johnson told Prime Minister’s Questions the amendment was being withdrawn.

He was responding to a question from the chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Simon Hoare.

“The vast majority of people and indeed politicians across Northern Ireland believe that whatever the question, double-jobbing is not the answer. Could I urge him to listen to the majority and ask him not to move the Government amendment in the other place later today?” said Hoare.

The Prime Minister replied: “I’m advised that I think the amendment in question is indeed going to be withdrawn.”

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