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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