Time to affirm the equality of the offices of First and deputy First Minister?

‘Only the DUP stands in the way of a Sinn Féin First Minister’ exclaims a Democratic Unionist leaflet regarding the forthcoming Assembly election. It comes complete with a bar graph that shows a small 5 percentage margin between the two parties.

At first glance one would think that it referred to the number of seats each party holds – which of course shows a much wider gap of 10 seats. This is of course crude dog-whistle politics. And it works.

Last year’s ‘Arlene for First Minister’ campaign was simple and admittedly effective resulting in the DUP exceeding the predictions of many observers who expected to see the DUP’s 2011 return trimmed, even modestly.

The race for First Minister is more optics than substance of course given that the First Minister and deputy First Minister are equal in all but name. So why continue the pretence?

Yet again the DUP want to use the difference in the titles of the two in effect Joint First Ministers to create a sectarian race, the beating of an old political drum.

However there is no race. The DUP vote will need to collapse and then some. Its not going to happen. RHI will damage the DUP of course but no-one expects them to drop to the low 20s.

However if the titles of First Minister and deputy First Minister serve only to satisfy a sectarian craving is it now time to end the false illusions of grandeur once and for all?

All the parties bar the DUP see the two top positions as being Joint First Ministers. If there are negotiations directly after the election as expected then perhaps this is one anomaly that can be removed once and for all.

In any other role of employment it would be unacceptable to an employee to take a lesser title of position than someone else even though they were carrying out the same duties.

Now is the time to remove the second class title from Stormont’s head office. The majority of political parties already agree. It’s time to end the pretence (and the sectarian race to be First Minister).


  • Gopher

    I have no dog is this fight because basically the whole of Stormont is not fit for purpose, but SF got their prisoners out, got the the petition of concern, were given a role in government no matter how well they polled and got the RUC name changed. I’m sure they could have traded anyone one of those at the time for Joint First ministers. They subseqently agreed the St Andrews agreement and then Fresh start. Is it now just a case of shutting up and administering the place instead of pulling a wish list out five minutes after every deal you have made?

    SF have stated they wont accept the result of this election, unless of course they win. SF have empowered the DUP no one else. The DUP now have the best negotiating position because even if “we” hammer them at the polls they dont have to go back to Stormont due to Gerry Adams positioning of SF in the north prior to this election.

  • ted hagan

    Sinn Fein triggered the election. What did you expect to happen? I’m sure there’s much more to come, from all sides. What a waste of time and all for an ugly stalemate.

  • Jag

    As Gregory Campbell would correctly say, being First Minister entitles you to be introduced first to visiting dignitaries, the deputy first minister gets introduced second.

    So there!

  • grumpy oul man

    The DUP are going to beat the orange drum. But whats new already on slugger for example we have had the oul Trojan horse /equality shinner plot thing brought up.
    Expect the IRA to be brought up (Ulster Resistance and the UVF will be ignored)
    Themmuns will be shouted and the sacrifice of the Somme will be mentioned at some stage.
    Tis nought but a dead cat with IRA written on it and it will be voted for.

  • Brendan Heading

    In the face of the long list of problems facing this country Sinn Féin want to make an issue out of the job title of a minister they may not even nominate.

    This is stupid.

  • Granni Trixie

    Symbolism has its place Brendan and Tbf to SF I don’t think this is about titles. Rather their complaints are around being treated in practice by the DUP as though they are not equal partners – which officially they are supposed to be. I think it is important not to let the DUP away with establishing this norm.

  • Tarlas

    “Is it now just a case of shutting up and administering the
    place instead of pulling a wish list out five minutes after every deal you have

    Peter Hain’s recent comments summed up broken promises, when coupled to other issues, that have led to disillusion.The DUP hamstrung by weak or compromised leadership, have remained stuck in a jungle of their creation, and beat a drum to create an illusion they are strong. They have been unable to lead us to a place where both traditions had buy in; and could co-exist with minimal division. The flag protest for example: Could have been handled better e.g.: When the Koori (Australian Aboriginal) Olympic runner Cathy Freeman won gold and wrapped herself in the Koori flag there was outrage in the Australian media and government. A bit like the Irish tricolour on
    Stormont episode. But Australia incorporated the Koori flag as recognition of
    the countries past, it is flown alongside the Australian flag on government buildings etc. even though the Koori people represent app 3% of Australian society today. Would it really have mattered if both flags flew representing our commonality? (Instead we had a thuggish campaign against the Alliance party)

    This analysis by Tommy Gorman sums up what is at stake. I think all politicians need to make sure any deals made in this next phase of negotiations are progressive for both traditions , legally rigorous and concise
    before returning to government.

    If not Mahatma Gandhi may have tread a path that could be replicated here.


    It is certainly not a time to rush back to “administer the
    place” where signed contracts/agreements are so easily negated. Affirming the equality of the offices of First and deputy First Minister, should most definitely be part of that process.

  • Brian Walker

    The problem is that there is enough equality around to require the consent of the other side to the change. Much the same applies to any other structural or process change. How do you overcome this, Daithi? Doesn’t it require a little less concentration on (obsession with?) the rule book however understandable that is, and much more on the spirit behind it by all parties? What are your ideas on this – and not just your objections to the point being made please?

  • NotNowJohnny

    Time to do away with the offices of first minister and deputy first minister altogether and replace them with a single office of first minister elected by the Assembly on a cross community basis. This will bring to an end a lot of the nonsense surrounding the joint office and the sectarian headcounting that it promotes.

  • Obelisk

    I have to disagree. The DUP use the difference in title to obfuscate the equality of the office, to establish a sense of smug superiority that pisses off the other community and to drive their voters in the polls in a sectarian headcount each and every time.

    It really should be changed to Joint First Ministers.

  • file

    Hi Gopher … on these points:
    but SF got their prisoners out … not just republican prisoners were released, you know. Loyalist paramilitaries were part of the deal too.
    got the the petition of concern … again this is not exclusively a Sinn Féin thing.
    were given a role in government no matter how well they polled … this is just incorrect: a party has to poll a certain number of seats to be allocated a role in government (unless it is the Alliance Party being given a free justice ministry in the past).

  • J D

    Because the DUP and the UUP. That’s why.

  • Skibo

    Furthermore Gopher, SF did not empower the DUP, the DUP mandate did that. The two parties that could sit in the executive decided not to take up their positions. This craic of one party putting the other party in government is blatantly not true. The number of MLAs of each party determines their strength within the Executive.

  • Skibo

    Brian, spirit of the agreement would be great but the problem with Unionist’s attitude to equality is they believe everyone should be equally British. Anything above and beyond, they do not agree with.
    The Unionists are bound to have known how important the Irish Language Act was and could have taken it off the table at an early phase when they held the ministry.
    They have no idea how to act to give even an image of equality to Irish culture. Taking £50K from the Irish language was petty.

  • Skibo

    I can see that working, NOT! Remember the problem they had getting a Justice Minister.

  • Skibo

    The sectarian headcount you refer to is the reason behind the setting up of NI and in the end it will be it’s downfall. How can you not expect it to be the mainstay in the way that Stormont is governed?

  • NotNowJohnny

    They didn’t have any problems getting a Justice Minister in 2011. And of course whatever problems they had getting a Justice Minister in 2016, they did get one in the end, one that lasted longer in post that either the FM or the dFM..

  • Skibo

    That JM from 2016 could have saved us all the problems we have now by requesting an independent inquiry as there was a implication of corruption and malpractice. I guess Arlene wouldn’t let her!

  • Brendan Heading

    I’m not saying that it should not be changed; but that it is a ridiculous thing to concentrate on. I’m familiar with your argument, it is a rehydration of SF’s party line.

    Renaming the job title of the first ministers is not going to make the DUP behave any more respectfully than they do at present. It is wallpapering over the cracks; creating an illusion of equality and respect where none exists. Solving the problem requires more effort than changing around titles.

    Sinn Féin have been doing this a lot – making a big deal out of certain concessions which supposedly enhance equality. A recent example is when they fought for the title of “Principal Deputy Speaker” to be created. Did anyone notice ? Does anyone feel that this change made them feel better for more than a day or so after it was announced ? I am wondering for how much longer nationalists are going to vote for a party promising optics which it can only deliver some of the time, while at the same time fail with the basics of governing.

    But above this, the country is facing serious problems. How is it going to look at the next election if SF have to go canvassing and are met on the doorsteps by angry residents who now have to pay to visit their GP because the government (of which SF is, or was, part) failed to act on time to underpin GP services within the NHS ? Are they really going to say, hey, yeah, it costs £15 to see a doctor but at least we got the job title of the First Minister changed and passed an Irish language act ?

  • Obelisk

    It’s not a major issue, no, but it is a small one and it is an example of what is wrong with the government.

    There is no reason that it should not be Joint First Minister except that the DUP want to use it as a sectarian cudgel to drive out the vote. And yes, Sinn Fein probably went along with it for the same reasons.

    Yet it is BECAUSE it is not a major issue that it should be changed, without fanfare on either side, because what is it now is immensely petty, small and sad (in the pathetic sense of the word). There should be no song and dance by Sinn Fein and the DUP shouldn’t use it as evidence of a major concession.

    It is just not worth the effort of the fight.


    The positions are of equal status for the last 10 years.You have to wonder
    does Sammy Wilson get a special thrill in conning his own electorate.

  • Skibo

    Brendan I think what some people are suggesting is a change in the names of the posts may make it abundantly clear to the DUP that one position does not have authority over the other. That may help the relationship between the two post holders.

  • Alan N/Ards

    Hi there Tarlas
    I can remember when Ireland rugby won the Six Nations in 09. When the majority of the Ireland team had draped themselves in the Tricolour (during the lap of honour at Twickenham) the three Ulster players held aloft the Ulster rugby flag. It was sad to see that the Ulster rugby flag was the only way they could express their identity during the celebrations.

    I can see where you’re coming from regarding northern nationalism and the Tricolour. If there was a way to give recognition to the Triclour for nationalism then I’m all for it. At the same time there needs to be recognition for unionists participating in all Ireland teams. The Cross of St. Patrick should offend no one. There needs to be respect shown for both identities.

  • Tarlas

    I agree. It is easy to get caught up in the continual tribal what-about-ery and win/lose arguments. Strong respectful leadership that can demonstrate win win logic will be important to negotiate a path through the oncoming fog