Breaching the limits of collective responsibility of the Executive…

Following last week’s ruck, reported here by Pete concerning the apparent memory loss of four nationalist ministers when they voted for an Alliance Party’s motion to provide free care for the elderly, despite the executive agreeing unanimously not to vote for high-spending measures unless all ministers supported them. The Newsletter carried one minister’s justification that Ministers were effectively autonomous and that changes to the ministerial pledge under the St Andrews legislation had not changed that.Conor Murphy:

But speaking to the News Letter, DRD Minister Conor Murphy of Sinn Fein said he did not see that there had been any change in ministerial freedom since the last Assembly. “The minister now will still have the same autonomy as under the Good Friday Agreement,” he said. A spokesman for Sinn Fein confirmed last night that Mr Murphy’s view was also the party position. “The DUP has a lot of strength in terms of the number of MLAs they now have but there is, in effect, no change in the legal position regarding ministerial accountability,” he said. “Our view broadly is there would be no change at all in the ministerial code or pledge of office that indicates any difference. It is possible some people tried to play to the media that there was now a difference. But the only real difference is party strengths numerically in the Assembly.”

However, the DUP’s Peter Weir was fairly robust in his response:

“The new legislation also ensured the creation of a statutory ministerial code which prevents ministers from acting unilaterally on significant or controversial matters,” he said. “This code is legally binding.”

It’s a matter that Finance Minister Peter Robinson was quick to put David Hanson last November. The minister did not stint on the detail of his answer:

The hon. Member for Belfast, East also asked the Secretary of State to confirm that a decision that by virtue of section 20(3) or (4) ought to be brought to the attention of, and considered by, the Executive committee, is not validly taken without the approval of the Executive committee, and that without such approval, a Minister has no ministerial authority to take such a decision. I can confirm that subsection (6) of new section 28A requires the new code to establish a procedure to enable a Minister to check whether a decision that he proposes to take should properly fall to the Executive committee for consideration. If Ministers are in any doubt, they should avail themselves of the new procedure [emphasis added].

The hon. Member for Belfast, East also asked whether a Minister has ministerial authority to take a decision that is properly brought to the Executive committee under a provision of the ministerial code, but on which the Executive committee is unable to agree. The Bill makes clear what issues Ministers are required to bring to the Executive, and places a legal duty on them to do so. It also places a duty on the Executive to decide how to handle issues that fall within their remit, either by consensus or by cross-community vote. I am labouring these points because I know that they are important to the hon. Gentleman and his party.

The hon. Gentleman also asked the Secretary of State to indicate the status of a ministerial decision taken without ministerial authority. I can confirm that in such a case, the decision would have been taken in contravention of the code itself. As such, it would not be a legitimate decision and would be open to legal challenge. The Minister himself would also be liable to the existing procedures under the 1998 Act.

What has this to do with the four ministers’ populist solo runs last week? Well, nothing by the looks of it. But however it plays with the media, the legislation seems crystal clear on the primacy of Executive over the conduct Ministerial briefs.

  • tobar

    “A battle a day keeps the voters away.”?

  • I would agree that a cursory interpretation of the legislation would indicate that the Executive does have primacy over Ministerial briefs.

    However, it is the original intention of the legislation which must be considered here.

    I do not believe that the initial intention of the legislation was designed to address normal day-to-day issues such as Elderley Nursing Care. Rather, I think it was designed to act as a safeguard if Minister’s decided to individually support or attempt to push through contreversial legislation on which their was cross-community conflict.

    Bearing that in mind, perhaps there is some degree of ‘truth’ in the differing interpretations of both Peter robinson and Conor Murphy.

  • Mick Fealty


    The actions of the ministers concerned had no solid political outcome on this occasion, since they were saved to some degree by the UUP motion therefore I don’t foresee any serious ramifications arising. But it does raise an important question as to how binding apparently straightforward agreements made within the context of the Executive are going to be on Ministers.

    It may be that they did not want to be seen abstaining from such a populist motion. Or it may have been an attempt to declare an (frankly illogical) independence from their ministerial office. Or some combination of both.

    But at some point, if our political class is to grow up and grasp the many nettles that lie ahead of them, they are going to have to face potentially negative media coverage that might ensue, simply by explaining why they do what they do.

  • Mick,

    I do agree with your central premise. I think that Ministers will have to become used to regular and constant scrutiny and I suppose that’s really what we all expect and want.

    Mind you, on the specific subject of last week’s debate, I wonder if it’s possible that SF were perhaps just testing the water on this one, to see what sort of reaction would be forthcoming from the other party’s who hold Ministerial positions (in particular The DUP). If that was the case, then the reaction from Peter Robinson was ceratinly voracious and to the point.

    I think we will see a lot of this sort of jockeying and positioning in the initial few months of The Executive.

    By the way, I am told that Jeffrey Donalsdon launched quite a severe attack on David Burnside during an Assembly debate earlier today. Do you have any details at all? I seem to recall those two being quite close political soul-mates at one time when forming the dissident anti-agreement axis of the UUP. Clearly there is now some real bad blood between them now for whatever reasons…

  • T.Ruth

    The Finance Minister and the MLA from North Down are not labouring a point that is of little importance. This matter is absolutely central to understanding why it is desirable and possible for Unionists to embrace the ST A Agreement and to be unable to support the Belfast Agreement. There is even a naive article in today’s Telegraph(Belfast) by D.Trimble that shows his inability to comprehend the same point.
    Now the political agenda is firmly under majority(Unionist) control. North/Southery is under Unionist control. Ministers are accountable to the Assembly.SF has signed up to accept the PSNI and the legitimacy of NI within the UK.
    Ministers must accept a degree of collective responsibility.You cannot agree one thing in the Executive and propose something different outside to court popularity with one’s electorate.
    SF wanted transparent ,accountable government institutions-with that comes a degree of responsibility. It will be a long and difficult road for SF personnel who are used to achieving their objectives by violence or the threat of punishment for those who do not see the world in their quaint 19th Century way.

  • T.Ruth,

    Much of what you said holds little factual basis.

    Your main assertion that Unionism now controls the political agenda is totally at odds with the whole point of this thread. i.e the legislation ensures that the Ministerial Exective acts on a collective basis. In other words, no political party or political idealogy (for that matter) can “control” the political agenda. I’m afraid that you have made a statement which has no factual basis to support it’s somewhat dramatic conclusion! You may still yearn for the halcyon days of Unionist Rule T.Ruth, but I’m afraid that those days are gone forever…!

    Also, it was actually the DUP, and not, (as you state), Sinn Fein who pushed for the implementation of this particular piece of legislation which was an amendment to the original agreement.

  • DC

    It appears that the focus is about ministers and whether they can do a ‘Han-Solo’ from the confines of their own office, it doesn’t seem to connect up with using the collective deliberation of an agreed Assembly motion and thus being able to vote with other MLAs to shape policy prioritisation.

    Having only had a brief look over the above, it would seem – yes – if you’re a minister, you can’t go thinking up your own harebrained ideas without Executive approval or indeed work as a Minister in contrast with Executive agendas. So no more ministerial solo-runs.

    But, on the flip side, in connection with Assembly voting, it doesn’t really link in with not being able to use your individual vote in the Assembly as you wish even if it does over-ride Executive priorities.

    I think this is were institutional arrangements need more clarification.

  • Mick Fealty


    It’s also to do with agreeing to be bound by agreements you freely make within the executive. Saying you’ll do one thing in one place and then going and doing another in the other is just plain bad form, surely?


    “Now the political agenda is firmly under majority (Unionist) control.”

    Interesting. What leads you to that conclusion?

  • DC

    “It’s also to do with agreeing to be bound by agreements you freely make within the executive. Saying you’ll do one thing in one place and then going and doing another in the other is just plain bad form, surely?”

    Yes, but with it only being a few sessions into the newly formed Assembly just what has actually been agreed to within the actual remits of the Executive and its sittings?

    There may well have been a general shot across the bows warning of no high-spending ideas, but if that wasn’t clearly defined as to operational areas then SF has the leeway to make an assumption that free care is affordable.

    And even at that, if there is existing party policy that contrasts with Executive-led agendas and the chance for it to come to fruition via an Assembly motion is available (endorsed by Assembly too) then of course you’d be keen to take it, regardless if it was over the heads of the majority of Executive-DUPers.

    A backdoor way of over-riding an Executive or you could say it’s representative democracy at work.

    I mean, everyone has rights 🙂

  • Animus

    The Transitional Assembly voted in favour of a motion for free personal care in December. All five major parties included manifesto commitments to free personal care. The only ‘issue’ I see is the timescale, and that is a matter of when, not if. Now that politicians are really in power, people are going to hold them to account. They’ve had five years to mull over this issue in particular. Let’s get moving.