Timeline of an Assembly vacancy using South Belfast as an example (bottom line, SDLP need to give a name to EONI by Friday 13th)

The NI Assembly has had numerous vacancies and co-options over the years, but few have generated as much interest at the resignation of South Belfast MLA Conall McDevitt and the SDLP’s process of replacing him.

So how does the process work? Who’s involved? And what is the timeline?

Article 6B of The Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2009 holds the relevant process.
6B section 1 NI Assembly Elections Amendment Order 2009

Section 6B (1) was triggered last week when the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) Graham Shields received written notification from the Speaker on Thursday 5 September.

6B section 2 NI Assembly Elections Amendment Order 2009
As a consequence the CEO wrote to the SDLP Nominating Officer (party leader Alasdair McDonnell) on the same day (Thursday 5 September). Receipt of his letter was acknowledged on Friday 6 September.

Thus the SDLP’s nomination for the South Belfast seat must be received by the CEO no later than Friday 13 September.

The SDLP confirm that their selection convention to fill the South Belfast vacancy has been scheduled for the evening of Thursday 12 September … allowing a letter to be (hand) delivered to the Electoral Office on Friday to meet the deadline. This is an accelerated process compared with the normal timescales for an SDLP constituency selection convention … but the law overrides the party’s normal practices when notice of resignation is short.

6B section 3 NI Assembly Elections Amendment Order 2009

Assuming that the nominee confirms within seven days that they are willing to be returned as a member of the Assembly …

6B section 6 7 NI Assembly Elections Amendment Order 2009

… then the Chief Electoral Officer can announce the filling of the vacancy (usually noted on the EONI website) and inform the Speaker of the Assembly.

I’ve a vision of the nominee being sent to EONI on Friday morning with the nomination letter in one hand and a letter saying “I do” in the other to fast forward the choreography in time to start work up on the hill at the plenary session on Monday 16th!

(Of course the small matter of a nominee resigning from their previous job, working their notice and/or doing any handover with their replacement might get in the way of such a rapid adoption of their new role).

The process for replacing independent members (who are not members of registered parties) is different (Article 6A) … though only applies if the member was independent at the point they were returned. If you resign from a party mid-term, and subsequently leave the Assembly, your original party ‘own’ the seat and can fill the vacancy.

[I was going to illustrate the process with the actual letters flowing backwards and forwards but these were not made available.]

Updatea second post now includes the actual correspondence, released under FOI.

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  • SDLP supporter

    I think your interpretation of the legislation quoted is too restrictive. The key phrase (for me) is Section 6B (2) is the first four words “as soon as practicable”, Conall McDevitt presumably resigned on Wednesday 4th September (he said he was resigning “immediately”). Presumably the SDLP Nominating Officer, Alasdair McDonnell, informed the Speaker that day or the next and this triggered the sequence of events you lay out.
    However, he could have (if he so chose) to tell the Speaker something along the lines of “Look, we have time line procedures laid down in the SDLP constitution to select Conall’s replacement, this will take three or four weeks and I will let you know formally the name of our chosen candidate and that will trigger the seven day window”.
    McDonnell chose not to do that and acted with what some would say was quite indecent haste after Conall’s resignation. The haste is not surprising as McDonnell and his preferred candidate Fearghal McKinney have been canvassing all summer for the anticipated vacancy when McDonnell has to quit under double-jobbing legislation. They were good to go anyway when the unexpected plum of Conall’s resignation fell into their laps and it suits them not to let anyone have time to mount a campaign.

  • Awaywithya

    Oh this is very short notice.
    Not much time for McDonnell to practice that fake smile in the mirror if McKinneys not selected.

    Actually think the SDLP have a good line up for this, all worthy contenders.

    Will watch with interest.

  • It was obviously traumatic for all concerned last week. A better option would have been to hold off the resignation…a declaration of intent to resign ….until SDLP in South Belfast had gone thru its selection procedures.
    But in the circumstances it seems a bit harsh to blame Alasdair for Fridays deadline.

  • Awaywithya

    FJH don’t know about you, but I have a hunch we will never fully know what exactly happened last week.

    I think you are spot on about the intent to resign declaration, its not like anyone was putting pressure on him to go (?)

    OK no matter how much I try and ignore it, I still smell a rat. Anyone else?

    Not sure anyone really blames McDonnell for the deadline tho.

  • SDLP supporter – I doubt that Alasdair McDonnell had any part in starting the process. If Conall wrote to the Speaker to communicate his immediate resignation, then there was nothing to prevent the dominoes falling.

    The “as soon as practicable” surely covers holiday situations (eg, over Christmas/New Year) and potentially a death to allow the funeral to happen before starting the process. Last week and this week wasn’t out of the ordinary. It’s just that the party has needed to act faster – and has found a way to do so – than its rules initially allowed.

  • Charles_Gould

    SDLP supporter

    I don’t think Alasdair McDonnell has acted other than appropriately. The selection must be made quickly under the rules.

  • I certainly cant see any reasonable person beginning the selection convention and making a point of order.
    Most people will agree with Dolores Kelly that people feel “bereft”. The healing process needs to begin soon and on Friday morning, we will have a new MLA. I wish her or him well.

  • I’m frankly curious as to who SDLP supporter is in the first comment.
    This is a very curious although well informed comment. It is also obviously partisan. My first instinct is that there is a battle commencing for the succession and this commenter is very obviously on the Claire Hanna wing. Perhaps I am wrong.
    In 2010 Conall succeeded Carmel Hanna.
    She was a serving councillor but Conall got the job in a straight run versus Bernie Kelly.
    When Conall got the nod….Carmel Hanna congratulated both candidates as you would expect.
    She commented at the time “I’m sure Bernie (Kelly) will have her day in the future”
    Does SDLP supporter know something not yet public?
    Is the Carmel wing mobilising on behalf of Bernie in a “stop Fearghal McKinney” campaign?

  • Charles_Gould

    Bangordub there are a number of candidates and I trust the good members of South Belfast will make the correct choice. And I hope it is Claire.

  • BluesJazz

    This is big news. Whoever is selected is going to be a very important person in the lives of everyone in NI, not just South Belfast.
    Far more important than George Osborne or IDS, or even Mark Carney, none of whom have any impact on the economy here.
    So it’s really, really important the SDLP get it right here.

  • Charles_Gould


    I actually think your sarcastic post misses the point.

    This new politician *is* important to the future of the SDLP and the politics of Northern Ireland.

  • Charles,
    I don’t even know who’s standing, I was presuming a straight run between Carmel and Fearghal but now I’m wondering.
    Blues Jazz,
    Grow up lad

  • Charles_Gould


    It is to be hoped that whoever wins *the whole party* gives him or her 100% support and rally forward.

    Alastair McDonnell and Dolores Kelly have been a very unifying leadership team in this difficult episode, as the SDLP come to terms with the loss of Conall.

  • BluesJazz

    At least Rafton Pounder never pretended to care.

  • Charles,
    Agree with that. I think Dolores will be very effective on the policing board.
    What irked me was that “SDLP supporter” seemed to be making a play for a candidate in his/her post.

  • Bangordub – Heaven forbid that any SDLP member in South Belfast would favour a particular candidate or favour the circumstances that would have improved the chances of a candidate.

    So is it a three horse race for South Belfast members between Bernie Kelly and Claire Hanna and Fearghal McKinney?

  • SDLP supporter

    Just to clarify, I am not suggesting in any way that McDonnell had anything to do with the events behind Conall’s departure. I am querying the hastiness of the process set in train to select a replacement.

    I may be right or wrong but this will only be proven when/if another MLA resigns in the future.

    And, yes, quelle surprise I have thoughts as to who would be the best replacement. But, with nominations closing today at 5.00 pm that may be a debate for tomorrow or Thursday.

  • Alan,
    It’s interesting to see the jockeying for position going on already, politics is indeed a ruthless business.
    SDLP supporter,
    “quelle surprise I have thoughts as to who would be the best replacement” – Who, may I ask?
    My own view would be Fearghal given the balance in the constituency but I am not a master tactician or an SDLP member for that matter.
    If I was I’d be thinking that the aim was to maximise representation for the 2016 election by spreading the appeal across the two DEA’s and wings of the party.
    Surely the object of the exercise is to have two MLAs elected in 2016. Fearghal now and a constituency rep such as Claire or Bernie added to the ticket by 2016.
    My own thoughts are that the constituency needs a big hitter with a profile right now?