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Stormont returns: who are the likely ministers in the new Northern Ireland Executive?

First step is the election of a speaker – the prerequisite for all other Northern Ireland Assembly business

Devolved government is to return to Northern Ireland for the first time in two years on Saturday with the Assembly due to meet to elect a speaker, nominate a first and deputy first minister, and choose ministers to sit in the newly formed Executive.

A lot has to happen in a short space of time and according to a complex process, and amid all the speculation around the names in the frame for ministerial office, perhaps the only certainty is that there is always a surprise or two on the day.

How does it all work?

The first step is the election of a speaker – the prerequisite for all other Assembly business. Under the cross-community rules that govern powersharing in Northern Ireland, this has to be a candidate acceptable to both unionists and nationalists.

The DUP’s refusal to agree to the nomination of a speaker after the Assembly election in 2022 – in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements – meant it was able to block the formation of an Executive and suspend the political institutions.


Now it has reached agreement with the UK government and is prepared to return, the process that should have taken place immediately after that election will now proceed.

The man being mooted as the most likely candidate for speaker is the DUP Assembly member Edwin Poots. Briefly the DUP leader in 2021, his support for the man who succeeded him, Jeffrey Donaldson was key in getting the party to back the deal to return to Stormont, and the position of speaker – which comes with a hefty pay cheque – would reward his loyalty and neutralise him as an opponent.

With the speaker in place, the largest and second largest party nominates a first and deputy first minister respectively.

Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill has been waiting to take up the position of first minister since May 2022; as the first time in Northern Ireland’s history that it has been led by a nationalist, this will be a highly symbolic moment.

This is notwithstanding the fact that this is a joint office and the roles of first and deputy first minister are intended to be equal in stature; Donaldson has already confirmed he will remain in Westminster as an MP until at least the general election, so the woman tipped to be standing alongside O’Neill as deputy first minister is the Lagan Valley MLA Emma Little-Pengelly.

They will each appoint a junior minister, and the parties will then take turns to nominate ministers according to the d’Hondt process.

What is d’Hondt – and how does it work?

This is where it gets complicated. Named after Victor d’Hondt, the 19th century Belgian lawyer who came up with the system, it allocates ministries so that they broadly reflect each party’s share of the vote.

“It’s a formula to ensure in powersharing administrations that government positions are divided fairly on the basis of strength, and that strength is the number of seats each party has,” says David McCann, election analyst and deputy editor of the Slugger O’Toole political website.

The Assembly election in 2022 returned Sinn Féin as the largest party, with 27 seats; the DUP was the second largest, on 25; Alliance took 17, the Ulster Unionists nine and the SDLP seven.

Nine seats is the threshold to qualify for a ministry, which means the SDLP – which has already chosen to go into opposition – will not hold a ministerial position for the first time since the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

There are eight ministries to be divided – Justice; Economy; Finance; Health; Education; Communities; Infrastructure; and Agriculture and Environment.

Justice is the only one of the eight that is not chosen according to d’Hondt. Because of Northern Ireland’s history it is instead appointed by a cross-community vote in the Assembly, and the most likely outcome is that it will again go to the outgoing Minister for Justice, the Alliance leader Naomi Long.

Who else is in the frame for a ministry?

Assuming Alliance takes Justice, that leaves seven; the parties will take their pick of the remaining ministries in order according to their relative strength, with Sinn Féin entitled to three, the DUP two, and Alliance and the Ulster Unionists (UUP) one each.

Sinn Féin goes first, and it is understood it will go for Economy under Conor Murphy, the outgoing Minister for Finance; the DUP picks next, with the speculation here around Gordon Lyons for Finance.

One to watch is Health. Last time around it was the final pick, going by default to Robin Swann of the UUP, who subsequently won widespread regard for steering Northern Ireland through the Covid-19 pandemic.

The state of the health service in Northern Ireland, with spiralling waiting lists, big budgetary problems and in desperate need of reform, makes this portfolio even more of a challenge than usual but, given that, it will be difficult – and deeply unpopular – for either of the two largest parties, Sinn Féin or the DUP, to pass it over.

In the scenario where an Alliance justice minister has already been chosen, Sinn Féin will get the third pick, which would give it an opportunity to take Health; the DUP will be fourth, and here the former first minister Paul Givan has been mooted as a potential minister.

Other key portfolios are Education – taken by the DUP in recent years – and Communities, where the outgoing minister, Sinn Féin’s Deirdre Hargey, could make a return.

Alliance’s final pick and the UUP’s choice will likely come down to what is left; Andrew Muir or Paula Bradshaw would be strong candidates to take the second Alliance ministry, while in the UUP Swann brings significant ministerial experience.

This, of course, is assuming neither the UUP nor Alliance choose to go into opposition.

Safe to say there are a lot of moving parts; the final breakdown will only be known once the process is complete.

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