What do you mean by party?

A potentially interesting twist on the attempt to form a Ulster Unionist Assembly Group, as part of the co-opting of PUP leader David Ervine by UUP leader Reg Empey. The Assembly Speaker Eileen Bell today deferred ruling on the matter while she seeks clarification on what exactly the phrase “political party” means. Could take a while..


  • DeepThroat

    Political party UUP/UVF style probably entails David and Sir Reginald drinking a few blue WKD’s down the Stormont Inn, taking some Pills and listening to banging house music until the wee small hours!!! East Belfast stylee!!!

  • Occasional Commentator

    The unionist/nationalist designation thing is strange enough, but at least there’s no confusion because the MLAs are free to certify themselves any way they please.

    But the rules for d’Hondt shouldn’t explicitly talk about ‘parties’. If two or more parties, MLAs or whatever want to group together to get a ministerial seat then so be it. It could even mean SF+SDLP or DUP/UUP/PUP grouping together to get another seat for unionism/nationalism if they had the numbers and could come to an agreement.

    Or even loads of the smaller parties and independents if they could come to an agreement.

    This could also get around the tie breakers sometimes needed in d’Hondt. For example, if 5 parties are tied for a seat and all but one are of the same designation, the majority should be able to take it for themselves if they can agree a candidate.

  • Jacko

    Everyone attacks the designation aspect of the assembly but it is a necessary evil for power sharing government in NI.
    I have yet to see anywhere an alternative to MLAs designating as unionist or nationalist that could possibly allow for a determination that executive seats had been distributed fairly across the broad community representatives.

  • Tony Clifton

    The fact that the Assembly are asking parties for their interpretation of the standing orders seems a bit silly and a bit of a show purely for the optics.

    The UUP and PUP have followed the standing orders to a tee so far, the speaker said as much today. For the purposes of the standing orders a political party is one that is registered with the assembly in advance of the first meeting of the assembly as the UUPAG was. There is no real debate over this, the whole thing is water tight.

  • Loyalist

    You hope. I would laugh my as* off if after all this, the move was ruled illegal.

  • canadian

    If Ms Bell can’t take a simple question and make a ruling, and if she doesn’t know what a political party is, I don’t think she’ll be long in the job.

  • Jacko

    Someone should explain to them all what politics means and the usual implications for someone elected to represent the people.

  • Crataegus


    I have yet to see anywhere an alternative to MLAs designating as unionist or nationalist that could possibly allow for a determination that executive seats had been distributed fairly across the broad community representatives.

    A few months ago someone introduced me to the parallel universe of the Matrix vote.

    Give Mr Emerson a ring but be prepared for a long session.

    Not quite sure if I picked it up right but seemed interesting at the very least as an idea.

  • Jacko

    Yes, I know of the matrix system the aforementioned has been punting it for some years now.
    In theory it is fine.
    But with political parties (and, of course, party whips) and in our own particular circumstances, it would mean nothing more than as it is now – party choices being elected to the ministerial posts agreed between the parties.
    Either that, or the whole system being stymied by independents and parties not entitled to a share of the ministerial cake trying to mess up the plans of the bigger parties.

    The bottom line remains, the only way to measure required cross-community participation at ministerial level is by overt or covert designation.
    Either that, or the electorate stops voting in such large numbers along sectarian and/or purely constitutional lines – which usually means the same thing.

  • DC

    Yeah we’re stuck with the sectarian designation system until such time as people here vote on lines other than sectarian.

    Doesn’t mean we’re condemned to endless d’Hondt all-party govt – you could have govt and opposition parties on each side of the Unionist / Nationalist divide.

    At the moment the only combination that wouldn’t work is DUP-SF – if negotiations this fall resolve that you could conceivably see any combination of the four parties working together – i.e. you could have a DUP/SF govt with SDLP and UUP acting as Her Maj’s loyal opposition.

    The opposition parties wouldn’t be in opposition to the settlement itself – but in opposition to the govt of the day.

    Methinks this is much better system in long run than enforced all-party coalition, tho’ latter is prob necessary for an initial year or two to bed things down.

  • DC

    Just to clarify – I would still think any govt would need to carry at least 40% from both sides of the community, i.e. would need cross-community legitimacy. I think this is a must for foreseeable future.

    So you might have a DUP-SF govt, or a UUP-SDLP govt, or a DUP-SDLP govt, but not a SF-SDLP or a DUP-UUP.

  • At the moment the only combination that wouldn’t work is DUP-SF

    DUP-UUP (with or without others) doesn’t look a starter either given the past ten days. And what line have the SDLP taken on the UUP & Ervine?

    How about DUP-SDLP-APNI? It would have a pretty substantial majority (66 to 42) and I don’t think any of them have a track record of refusing to work with the others (making it harder to find sudden overt objections). They could even give Health to Deeney.

  • Rubicon

    “If Ms Bell can’t take a simple question and make a ruling, and if she doesn’t know what a political party is, I don’t think she’ll be long in the job.” (canadian)

    So canadian – what “party” does Irvine belong to? Last Monday he declared UUPAG, walked out of the chamber to the TV cameras and declared himself to still be the leader of the PUP. Same applies to Reg.

    So – what is it?

    You define a “party” and illuminate us.

    Then – think carefully – and ask yourself why you were asked the question.

    Are you getting any nearer to answering your own confusion?

  • Rubicon

    The problem with even floating an opposition/government model is that an essential piece of the jigsaw has just signed up to the responsibility for decommissioning the UVF and until that job is done who’ll be working with the UUPAG? SF perhaps – but that’d not be enough (only 49 seats). The 5 APNI seats would just get a majority – but then there’d be a more serious difficulty. Unionists wouldn’t have a majority of ministries – and we know the UUPAG wouldn’t stand for that!

  • Jacko

    “… tho’ latter is prob necessary for an initial year or two to bed things down.”

    I agree entirely with all you say, particularly the above.
    My position has always been a hope that after a few years normal left/centre/right (or what passes for that nowadays) politics might emerge.

    Temporary and/or convenient groupings/alliances between minority parties and/or independents within elected chambers is hardly a new concept.
    It happens the world over.
    In the Republic, for example, Sinn Fein, the Greens and a few indos. have formed just such to qualify for better speaking rights, grants and office facilities etc.
    The only difference with the UUP/Ervine thing is that, under Stormont rules, such groupings must be given a title. This doesn’t, in the slightest, compromise party allegiance as it applies only in, and to the workings of, the chamber.

  • kensei

    “Doesn’t mean we’re condemned to endless d’Hondt all-party govt – you could have govt and opposition parties on each side of the Unionist / Nationalist divide.”

    Except the Unionist parties would ensure that the result would be to keep SF permanently out of government. What you are suggesting is essentially voluntary coalition. It won’t work, at leaat not without 10-20 years of the current system.

  • Rubicon

    Jacko – The Republic doesn’t use the D’Hondt mechanism and it is this that I suspect to be at the heart of the difficulty.

    The Republic’s less formal regulations regarding ministerial offices appears to give greater representation to small parties – as long as they form one of the government parties. The temporary alliance arrangements to which you refer relate to practices typically adopted by small opposition groups/individuals/parties.

    In NI the arrangements apply to the formation of government and the Assembly needs to be clear to the public about who represents who. If the UUPAG is accepted then I can’t see how the UUP and PUP identities can also be recognised – at least not for Assembly business purposes. To do so would give the 2nd nomination to the UUPAG and the 4th to the UUP.

    D’Hondt in the Assembly is constructed around political parties. At the base of Reg’s explanation for UUPAG seems to be the argument that nominations should be done by the “unionists/nationalists/others” blocs. Such an arrangement would likely encounter problems – but with some thought perhaps those problems could be solved.

    Perhaps a 2-stage d’Hondt process could solve the problem; the first stage determining which bloc gets a nomination and the 2nd stage determining which party within the bloc makes that nomination.

  • Keith M

    I’m just back from Eurovision, so I’m catching up with the events of the last two weeks. I find it hard to believe that the UUP have become so desperate that thay actually approached a member of another party to join their group so that they might get another ministerial position if (a big “if”) the executive is re-established. Worse still is the fact that it is leader of a party that has an active paramilitary wing. What makes it more ridiculous is that Ervine will not leave the PUP or become a member of the UUP. Were there no voices of dissent in the UUP?

    As for Jacko’s comment “Everyone attacks the designation aspect of the assembly but it is a necessary evil for power sharing government in NI.”. This is simply untrue. A far better system would be to introduce a qualified majority (say 66% of MLAs) that would be required to elect an executive and pass legislation.

    Designation is an appalling system which only entrenches the “them and us” profile of N.I. politics and all but neuters parties like Alliance that try to build cross-commubity support.

  • Rubicon

    A 2-stage d’Hondt would give the following sequence of nominations:

    1. Unionists = DUP
    2. Nationalists = SF
    3. Unionists = UUP
    4. Nationalists = SDLP
    5. Unionists = DUP
    6. Unionists = DUP
    7. Nationalists = SF
    8. Unionists = UUP
    9. Nationalists = SF
    10. Unionists = DUP

    Unionists get 6 out of 10 (should keep Reg happy), Nationalists get back the 2nd nomination and there’s no party link between the UUP and the UVF. Instead the UVF ‘link’ would be to the unionist group like it was before Reg’s deal.

  • missfitz

    The sun is shining. Get out of the house and get some fresh air.

  • Rubicon

    Error – 9th nomination would be SDLP and not SF.

  • Tony Clifton


    For the purposes of the rules of procedure of the assembly and the standing orders a ‘political party’ is any registered with the assembly in advance which people have a desire to join. What Empey and Ervine have done is form a coalition. There is nothing they have done thatb is any way ‘suspect’ I may not be a huge fan of it, but there is nothing wrong with it.

    As for still retaining UUP/PUP membership, their is nothing to prevent people being members of two political parties (outside of the assembly) apart from the constitution of the parties in question, it is up to the leadership of these parties how to deal with their constitution and when to change it.

  • kensei

    “This is simply untrue. A far better system would be to introduce a qualified majority (say 66% of MLAs) that would be required to elect an executive and pass legislation.”

    The result: exclusion of SF. Next.

  • Tony Clifton


    I am very open to me being wrong about this, but for the assembly not to obtain a 66% majority would 36/37 people not have to be opposed…..that is greater than all of the political parties not just sinn fein, seems like a fair enough compromise to me , each party would need additional support to oppose something.

    I know that at least the PUP and Alliance have been long term advocates of a weighted majority, pre dating the signing of the GFA.

  • Briso

    >>”This is simply untrue. A far better system
    >>would be to introduce a qualified majority (say
    >>66% of MLAs) that would be required to elect an
    >>executive and pass legislation.”

    >The result: exclusion of SF. Next.

    Quite Kensei. In the words of the hokey cokey, “that’s what it’s all about!” One day, we’ll get the chance to debate this stuff when the APNI, UUP and DUP explain what form of Voluntary Coalition they want. 50%+1 of MLAs? But make no mistake, it has one aim. EXCLUDE SINN FEIN FROM THE EXECUTIVE.

    If the SDLP dally with any of this, they are finished and they know it.

  • canadian


    I don’t need to define what a political party is. That presently would appear to be Ms Bell’s job.
    She’s had over a week now to make a ruling and either she (or the committee appointed to research it) seem to be paralyzed.
    Perhaps they’re waiting for a copy of the OED to be delivered.

  • Emperor’s New Clothes

    canadian – What’s the hurry? In wishing to consult and by gaining the views of the parties (groups?) the Speaker can consider responses. I see you’ve opted out and not rose to the challenge – was it out of a fear that you may have your definition quoted back at you at a later date?

    Reg rushed his decision – no need for everyone else to do the same – even if some now appear to be getting a little nervous.

  • Wasn’t the problem that Reg didn’t trust government assurances that the standing orders in the Assembly would be amended? As I understand it under current standing orders the UUP’s entitlement is based on their Assembly membership on Monday, not later on.

  • inuit_goddess

    Can’t see what the delay is – surely this is pretty much similar to the “Technical Group” between the smaller parties in the Dail??

  • canadian

    Emperor Sire,

    I am totally disinterested in what the final decision is. My beef is that, in a body such as the Assembly, with rules and standing orders, it seems incredible to me, that a Speaker can take over a week (at the minimum) to rule on a point of order.

  • Pete Baker


    An uncharitable observer [not myself.. naturally] might suggest that, as a member of the Alliance Party, the Speaker did not wish to offend the powers that be [the NIO/British Government] by determining how the regulations on d’Hondt should be interpreted without first receiving clarification from the source.. as it were.

  • canadian

    So Pete,

    Even with the “source’s” vast resources, they can’t come up with an answer. Either this is very funny or profoundly sad. Can’t make up my mind.

  • joeCanuck

    This reminds me of an old saying (can’t remember if it’s Irish/British/Canadian).

    Some people are so dumb, they couldn’t organize a piss-up in a brewery.

  • Pete Baker


    There will be assessments to be made on the possibility of future coalitions.. and the potential impact on the distribution of ministerial positions…

    ..as well as the weighing of the long-term effects against the short term results.

  • canadian


    I totally understand that. But surely there already exists some sort of agreed rules. Isn’t it a simple matter to consult the rulebook?
    Or can someone (the “source”?) change them on the fly.
    If no rule exists, shouldn’t they just say that?
    Or is someone (the “source”?) just going to make one up?
    Without a rule and, in the absence of an agreed executive, is it possible to propose a change to the standing orders (or to refuse one) on the basis of cross community support?

    Regards, dumb Canadian.

  • Pete Baker

    The problem, as I understand it, canadian [and I don’t think you’re dumb btw.. these are important questions] is that the regulations on how d’Hondt operates in the Assembly, in the distribution of the ministerial positions, may actually refer to political parties.. not political groupings or coalitions.

    So, slightly worryingly for Sir Reg, a literal[and accurate] reading of those standing orders would seem to suggest that the UUP move would have no effect on that distribution.

  • canadian


    Thank you for that clarification.
    So, contrary to most opinion, Sir Reg didn’t just shoot himself in the foot, he may have well and truly have f***ed himself, all for nothing.


  • Pete Baker

    Well, canadian.. that will ultimately depend on the decision by the Speaker.. hence the delay/uncertainty/seeking of clarification.

  • canadian

    I smell a big payday for the lawyers.
    They must be salivating.

  • Rubicon

    Canadian – the lawyers are already there – and no matter what decision the Speaker makes there will be more lawyers in tow. Hopefully, the extras will be paid by party funds – or even “group” funds.

    I think you sre mistaking what you call “delay” for ensuring parties/groups are dealt with in a consistent manner – of their own choosing if possible. Once they make that choice they will have to live with it. If a week is a long time in politics, how long is it between now and the 24th November?

    Do you seriously think that the Speaker is in need of the OED?

    BTW – points of order can take considerable time to respond to. Most should be responded to immediately. I’m sure you’ll have read Hansard and know that this is the case – but if you haven’t it’s available on the web and I suggest you take a read.

    I’m disappointed you couldn’t define a party while demanding the Assembly should do so immediately. What are the consequences to you giving it a go? None?

    Go on – give it a go. You were quick to condemn so is it fair to conclude that the matter is simple for you?

    If you have an answer – speak up!

  • canadian


    You seem to be demanding that I give some pithy answer along the lines of “a group of people joined together in a common purpose”. I won’t drink from such a poisoned chalice.
    However, I would imagine that any political party would have certain characteristics; to name but a few:
    – A name
    – A constitution
    – Conditions for membership
    – Membership list
    – Joining fees
    – Procedures for electing party officers

    I could go on, but I sense that you are just trying to bait me.

    BTW, I do not live in N.I. and am not a member of any political party.
    Perhaps I’m just dumb.


  • Rubicon

    Canadian – thanks for the definition. The UUP/PUP group (UUPAG) would fail that definition on a number of counts.

    The legislation for nomination of ministers doesn’t refer to alliances but political parties and I’d agree with you – UUPAG doesn’t seem to be a political party. I expect though that lawyers may be struggling to grapple to define political party in a way that can be supported by the courts. Since no matter what decision the Speaker makes a challenge in the courts is inevitable it seems sensible for the Assembly to seek statements from the leaders of the political parties that may be used in evidence.