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First Among Equals

Mark Devenport | 15:14 UK time, Monday, 20 September 2010

Although the lower TUV vote in the Westminster election may ultimately make it academic, the debate over whether the DUP or Sinn Fein will be the biggest party is likely to recur in the run up to next year's Assembly election. Under the current rules, of course, the largest party will supply the First Minister, something which has made unionists nervous about the prospect of Martin McGuinness taking the top job.

The Ulster Unionist leadership contender Tom Elliott has called on the Conservatives to change the rules back to the Good Friday Agreement model. Clearly this would be in the interests of the UUP who may face a squeeze on their vote as part of a unionist/republican battle to top the poll. However it looks unlikely that Owen Paterson will have either the parliamentary time or the inclination to make such an amendment.

As the election comes closer, a debate is also underway about who was responsible for the change in the rules which now sees the largest party claiming the First Minister's job as of right, rather than as a result of a cross community vote.

In a Belfast Telegraph article the DUP Deputy leader Nigel Dodds criticised those who he claims are responsible for "a sustained campaign of misinformation concerning the procedure for electing a First Minister". Mr Dodds argues that the Good Friday Agreement said nothing about giving the top job to the largest party from the largest community. Instead he says, correctly, that the First and Deputy First were elected jointly on a cross community basis under the 1998 rules.

The North Belfast MP goes on to argue that the St. Andrews Agreement gave the job to the largest party from the largest designation (a unionist as things stand) but he adds that "regrettably, the Government did not faithfully implement this section of the St Andrews Agreement in the legislation."

This is where his argument gets more contentious. Mr Dodds says the DUP did not support a subsequent change which meant that Stormont's biggest party could lay claim to the job even if they did not hail from the Assembly's biggest designation.

Here Mr Dodds' former colleague, the TUV leader Jim Allister gives a radically different account. In a news release today, Mr Allister claims that not one DUP MP opposed the move in the Commons, while DUP peers voted for the clause in the Lords. Mr Allister argues that a "calculated decision was taken that creating the threat of McGuinness as First Minister would be a useful electoral tool to duress unionists into voting DUP".

Although Mr Dodds is right that the Good Friday Agreement did not specify that unionists would provide the First Minister the clear understanding which emerged from Castle Buildings was that David Trimble would be the First Minister and Seamus Mallon the Deputy First. Should the SDLP have had the inclination to go back on this understanding then the cross community arrangement ensured that the UUP could withhold their votes until satisfied.

Removing the voting requirement spared the DUP's blushes in ensuring their MLAs did not have to actively give their support to Martin McGuinness as Deputy First. But the change then made to the rules in the legislation which followed St. Andrews could one day have unionists blushing for a different reason.

Where Nigel Dodds' Belfast Telegraph article is persuasive is his argument that unionist voters cannot be treated like "sheep that are easily herded into the voting booths based on fear created by scheming politicians". The argument over who might be the future First Minister will undoubtedly feature in media coverage of next year's Assembly election campaign. But will the prospect of Martin McGuinness being the first of two equals spook unionist voters? Or will they make their decisions on issues like health, educations, cuts and the economy?


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