Northern Ireland news

Public backs assembly reform alongside ditching of first and deputy first minister titles

There is strong public support for ditching the first and deputy first minister titles. Picture by David Young/PA Wire

THERE is strong support for reform of Stormont structures, including changes to the first and deputy first ministers’ titles, the latest survey indicates.

A majority of respondents to the Institute of Irish Studies-University of Liverpool/The Irish News opinion poll back the executive being led by ‘Joint First Ministers’ (51.8 per cent), with less than one-fifth (18.6 per cent) in favour of no change.

The May 5 election is widely expected to yield a nationalist first minister for the first time in Stormont’s history. Unionists have refused to say whether they would serve under Michelle O’Neill, who would be in line for the first minister’s post if Sinn Féin tops the poll.

The first and deputy first ministers’ posts are equal in status, with the rules dictating that neither can make decisions without the other’s consent. However, the symbolism of holding the first minister’s post is regarded as important.

In 2015, the then deputy first minister Martin McGuinness said he would propose a name change to the "joint office of first minister" if Sinn Féin emerged as the assembly’s largest party.

The late Sinn Féin northern leader said he was not fixated on "fancy titles”.

However, more recently Sinn Féin has appeared less amenable to changing the titles.

The DUP is also resistant to changes though its stance may differ after May 5’s election.

The survey also reveals strong support for changing the assembly’s procedure for cross-community support, with almost two-thirds (61.7 per cent) of respondents agreeing that a simple 60 per cent threshold to demonstrate cross-community support should replace the current requirement of support from at least 40 per cent of each of the nationalist and unionist designations. Less than one-in-10 (7.2 per cent) oppose the change.

More than half of people support the removal of the requirement that MLAs designate as 'nationalist, 'unionist' or other (55.4 per cent) with less one-fifth opposing such a move (18.7 per cent).

An even greater proportion of respondents backs reforming the procedure that privileges the views of nationalist and unionist MLAs (62.5 per cent), with 7.8 per cent disagreeing.

More than three quarters of people MLAs should not be paid if an executive is not formed within six months of the May 5 election (77 per cent).

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