Commons committee proposes biggest shake-up of Stormont since the Good Friday Agreement

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster is proposing significant changes to power-sharing in a bid to stabilise the Stormont government.

Measures include rebranding the equal offices of First and Deputy First Ministers 'Joint First Ministers', with both being elected by a two-thirds supermajority.

Any two Members from any two parties would be eligible for election, rather than just the largest two parties, as at present.

The backbench committee also proposes reforming the rules so that an Assembly Speaker can be elected by the same two thirds supermajority.

Currently, votes from a majority within both Nationalist and Unionist traditions are required to elect a Speaker, First and Deputy First Ministers.

But recent Northern Ireland Assembly and council elections have shown a significant increase in the number identifying as neither Nationalist nor Unionist.

Supermajority voting would effectively equate to cross-community consent, the Committee heard during its inquiry into why the devolved government has repeatedly collapsed.

It is 18 months since Sinn Fein topped the poll, Michelle O'Neill becoming the first Nationalist eligible to be elected First Minister.

But the Democratic Unionists have been boycotting power-sharing ever since in protest at the Irish Sea border established under post-Brexit trading arrangements.

When the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee began examining the issue, Stormont had been non-functioning for 40% of the time since its inception.

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Committee chair, Sir Robert Buckland, said: "When Stormont collapses, critical public services are cast adrift.

"Health, education, policing; are all feeling the strain while important decisions go unmade, and the people of Northern Ireland suffer.

"More stringent safeguards are needed to protect against the cycle of restoration and collapse that has dogged Stormont.

"The short-term measures we've proposed will shore up the stability of Stormont, increasing the incentives to keep the institutions moving and enabling the Assembly to run without an Executive in place.

"In the longer run, we feel that a full independent review into the effectiveness of the institutions of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement should be conducted with input from all stakeholders," he added.

The proposed changes could require consultation with the Irish Government as co-guarantor of the Agreement, and with each of the political parties.