New ministers, new departments…here’s what we DO know

24 May 2016 - by Claire Shanks

If the 2016 Assembly election campaign was considered “boring”, the same certainly cannot be said of the aftermath.

The opportunity for eligible parties to enter into official Opposition in the Assembly has injected real excitement, intrigue and, some would argue, a degree of “normality” into Northern Irish politics. The election results may have done little to challenge the status quo up on the hill in terms of party strengths, but the decision by the UUP and the SDLP to forego their seats around the Executive table ensures that we are in for a very different mandate to anything that has gone before.

So, where are we now?

In the absence of the aforementioned parties, it is up to the DUP and Sinn Féin to divvy up the Executive departments between themselves for ministerial appointments. For this we use the D’Hondt process – a mathematical calculation based on the number of seats won, dictating the order in which parties can choose departments.

The only departments D’Hondt is not applied to are The Executive Office, home to the First and deputy First Ministers, and the Department of Justice - the latter post the current focus of intense political negotiation and media scrutiny.

Since devolution of policing and justice in 2010, the Justice Minister has been selected via cross-community vote, with the Alliance Party successively assuming the mantle, thus avoiding the controversy of either a nationalist or unionist taking up such a politically sensitive role.

At the time of writing, indications are that the Alliance Party will refuse to nominate a Justice Minister this time around. Not only will they sacrifice their one chance of taking a seat at the Executive, (the party failed to secure enough seats to qualify for D’Hondt in their own right), but Alliance has given the DUP and Sinn Féin quite the headache as they try to come up with a ‘Plan B’ before the deadline tomorrow, when the new government ministers are due to be appointed during a Plenary session in the Assembly.

Rumours are rife as to what could unfold in the Chamber tomorrow. All manner of potential outcomes have been bandied about: A Green Party Justice Minister? A young Independent Unionist from East Londonderry in the form of Claire Sugden? An amenable DUP MLA? A DUP/SF joint office? Or a legislative change to allow a split term of office, perhaps?

It’s safe to say, all bets are off.

With all this excitement you could almost be forgiven for ignoring the other seven departments that will have new ministers appointed to their helm tomorrow. And it is not just the ministers that will be new, but also the composition of the departments themselves.

A key facet of the Fresh Start and Stormont House agreements was the commitment to reduce the number of Northern Ireland departments down from 12 to nine, the logic being that it would encourage greater cross-departmental working as well as delivering cost savings. Whilst some departments remain largely unchanged in name and function (Finance, Education, Health), some of the mergers have resulted in undeniably “new” departments – the behemoth Department for Communities a case in point.

So, as we await with bated breath the outcome of tomorrow’s Assembly Plenary session, Stratagem invites you to get clued up on what we do know, by downloading our Guide to the New Departments – your one-stop shop to what the new departments do and who you need to talk to.