Fresh Talks or Fresh Elections?

10 January 2017 - by Tristen Kelso

Come Monday 5pm, it will fall on Secretary of State James Brokenshire to announce an election, assuming that the office of deputy First Minister remains unfilled. What isn’t clear, however, is when he will actually move to dissolve the Assembly.

The question arises as to whether there will be any appetite for talks next week, or indeed on the other side of an election. The possibility of talks may provide a more compelling campaigning platform for both parties. Alternatively, discussions after an election will make for a rather different campaign, one which will likely concentrate heavily on orange and green politics 

What we do know:

  • The Executive

o   With the resignation of deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, the First Minister Arlene Foster is also out of the Executive Office. The Executive cannot meet or function, but individual ministers continue in post. Meetings with some DUP and Sinn Féin ministers have been cancelled this week. We have seen DUP ministers carrying out ministerial visits and releasing statements. Will we see a rush of policies being signed off by ministers this week before dissolution of the Assembly and election rules kick in with purdah?

  • Committees

o   The Business Committee meets today. It will be asked if it wishes to schedule the nomination of deputy First Minister in Monday’s plenary sessions and to determine business for that day, and possibly Tuesday. Committee clerks are reporting it is business as usual this week, with no changes to agendas, while civil servants and others are giving evidence as scheduled. Clerks are also preparing committee packs for next week regardless. These go out on Friday to all MLAs. The question is whether committee chairs, in order to get things over the line, will prioritise key issues which don’t need Executive approval.

  • Assembly Business

o   The Assembly continues to function, with MLAs are still submitting Assembly Questions this week, to be answered (ideally) within 10 working days (although note that there will be no new questions to the Executive Office). MLAs are still sponsoring Long Gallery events and attending APGs, but if an election is called next week, and we have an early date for dissolution, then all scheduled events and APGs will be cancelled.

o   The Assembly Connect service confirmed that it has closed registration for all events for the time being, until it is known what is happening.

  • Party conferences

o   Alliance Party and SDLP party conferences were both due to take place in March. Sinn Féin’s Ard Fheis is likely to be staged sometime in April or May. The March conferences could be postponed unless the election date is at the end of that month, which would enable these events to be used as platforms for the election

  • Purdah (refers to the period between the dissolution of the Assembly and the date of poll) & Civil Service

o   Executive Ministers remain in office until close of poll.

o   New Assembly likely to meet for first time in the week after the poll, to elect a Speaker.

o   Ministerial offices, including First and deputy First Minister must be filled within 14 days beginning from the date of the first meeting.

o   Officials will continue to provide support to ministers in the day-to-day exercise of their responsibilities, but do not provide new arguments specifically for use as part of the election campaign.

o   Ministers to exercise discretion during the election period in initiating any new action of a continuing or long-term character. Decisions on matters of policy, which an incoming minister and, where appropriate, the Executive might expect an opportunity to consider post election, should be postponed.

o   There is a presumption that official support should not be provided for the launch of new policy initiatives, announcements, the opening of new facilities, paid publicity campaigns or any other matters which could be seen as having a bearing on the election campaign.

o   New public consultations on significant policy proposals should not be launched during an election period. Consultations on lesser matters may be able to proceed as normal. If a consultation is underway at the time of dissolution, it will continue until its conclusion. So we might expect to see rushed decisions on consultations this week which may go out before being properly quality assured.

o   MLAs cease to hold office on the dissolution of the Assembly.

o   If Special Advisors wish to take part in an election, or to help in a party headquarters role during a campaign, they must first resign their appointment.

o   The Head of the Civil Service, Dr. Malcom McKibbin, was due to step down in January this year but has agreed to stay on until April to provide some stability. Two of the permanent secretaries thought to have been in the running for the top position have both given evidence on the RHI issue to the Public Accounts Committee.

  • Election

o   At 5pm next Monday, 16 January, if there is still a deputy First Minister vacancy, the Secretary of State’s election process is automatically triggered.

o   The Secretary of State has autonomy to call an election on Monday 16th or to pause and call it at a later date. If it emerges this week that talks are likely then we may see the Secretary of State delay the date of dissolution and therefore push back the election date. We will then have a zombie Assembly that will limp on.

o   We await the Secretary of State’s announcement, which will dictate when purdah will officially commence.

o   Ministers continue to be ministers until midnight before the election.

o   MLAs are MLAs until the date of dissolution, when they become candidates (if running).

o   Guidance on purdah during an election campaign will be sent to MLAs (see guidance from last election).

  • Post election

o   Note that no mechanism exists any longer for suspension of the institutions, so emergency legislation through Westminster would have to be enacted for such a mechanism to be re-established.

o   Will we see a new form of government, in the form of re-worked devolved institutions? Failing agreement between DUP and Sinn Féin, will a form of direct rule be re-introduced, including the possibility of a stronger input by the Republic of Ireland?

  • US

o   Any trip by senior leaders to Washington DC on St. Patrick’s day will be on hold as we either face talks (optimistic) or an election (more than likely). In 2015, Peter Robinson and Mr McGuinness stayed away from Washington to work on the impasse over welfare reform.

  • Brexit

o   Who now negotiates Northern Ireland’s position? The Secretary of State will be busy.

Regardless of what happens over the coming weeks and months, policy responsibilities will be allocated to someone; therefore now is the time to sharpen your policy asks, review who your key stakeholders are, and be ready with your messages; whatever hand we are dealt.