Newton Emerson doesn’t often get his facts wrong, however today in his review of the week in the Irish News, he does make a factual error.
He asks why the St Andrews Agreement legislation inserted the provision used this week for the First or deputy First Minister to take a 6 week leave of absence, and suggests it was due to Ian Paisley’s health. He is alas wrong to suggest that the provision was negotiated at St Andrews. While section 16 (which governs the First and deputy First Ministers) of the 1998 Northern Ireland Act was totally pulled apart by section 8 of the St Andrews Agreement Act, including insertion of the squalid piece of sectarian electioneering that gave the largest party the right to nominate the First Minister, it also replicates several provisions of the original section 16.
One of these is the provision that an Acting First or Deputy First Minister can be appointed for a period of six weeks. This provision was used in the Summer of 2001. David Trimble resigned office and appointed Sir Reg Empey to be his acting replacement, with the legislation making provision that while Seamus Mallon lost office with Trimble’s resignation, he was able to continue until a new election to OFMdFM. Indeed during the Assembly proceedings appointing Sir Reg, Peter Robinson saw fit to join with Bob McCartnety in making comments regarding mental illness. It is worth noting that Robinson has not resigned, and therefore neither he nor McGuinness have left office, and as a result no
election appointment process is required for him to retake office. It is also worth pointing out that the Scottish First Minister has a vaguely similar process during periods of incapacity.