Northern Ireland news

How the Stormont deal seeks to stabilise power-sharing – but will it work?

The Assembly Chamber in Parliament Buildings, Stormont. Picture by Paul Faith/PA
Brendan Hughes

THE Stormont deal includes a range of measures aimed at improving the stability of power-sharing.

Chief among them is addressing the Petition of Concern (PoC), the assembly's contentious 'veto' mechanism which has been considered a key sticking point in the negotiations.

The British government says the agreement delivers "meaningful reform" to the PoC, but the amendments appear minimal compared what some parties had been proposing.

It can no longer be used to protect MLAs or ministers from motions on their conduct, but parties are generally only making a woolly promise to use it in "exceptional circumstances and as a last resort".

At 30 signatures, there is no change in the number of MLAs needed to trigger a petition – but it now needs members from two or more parties (or one party plus MLAs elected as independents) and cannot be signed by the assembly speaker or deputy speakers.

It is hoped these changes will return the PoC to its intended purpose of safeguarding minorities, but will it be enough to prevent future disputes over its use derailing the assembly? The British government has pledged to keep it "under review" with six-monthly reports.

In the wake of the RHI inquiry, the deal also outlines various measures aimed at improving the executive's transparency and accountability, including "strengthened drafts of the ministerial, civil service and special adviser codes".

The role of special advisers (Spads) will come under greater scrutiny, with publication of their gifts and hospitality received, meetings with external organisations, and pay.

In what seems like a response to DUP leader Arlene Foster's "I'm accountable but I'm not responsible" reaction during the inquiry to concerns over her Spad Andrew Crawford's conduct, the deal sets out that ministers would be "responsible for the management, conduct and discipline of their special advisers".

Concerns over civil servants' record-keeping and note-taking are also addressed through an "explicit requirement" to maintain accurate records.

In addition to the assembly standards commissioner which examines MLA conduct, there will be a new watchdog for ministers called the Commissioners for Ministerial Standards. However, the three new ministerial commissioners won't be able to make any recommendations for sanctions if ministers breach the code.

The deal also includes measures aimed at preventing the institutions from collapse again if another RHI-style political crisis emerges.

There will be more time to seek a replacement for a resigning First or Deputy First Minister before an election is triggered, and more time after an election to form an executive.

Taking cues from how Belfast City Council works, the deal introduces a Party Leaders' Forum to "improve collaboration and partnership". This could prove an important way for parties to privately thrash out disputes and combat the 'silo' mentality of how departments worked in previous administrations.

The glaringly missing piece in all this is of course the public inquiry report into the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal which brought down Stormont in the first place.

Inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlin and his team have yet to publish more than a year since public hearings came to a close. When the executive collapsed three years ago, few would have expected Stormont could have been restored before an RHI investigation delivered its findings.

The deal sidesteps this inconvenience by vowing to establish a "dedicated sub-committee which will consider the findings of the RHI inquiry and propose further reforms".

Whether any such recommendations ever bring about meaningful reforms will be left up to a future executive.

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