Unionists’ stance on deputy first minister post disturbing

Posted By: November 15, 2021

While the protocol issue has been widely presented as offering the greatest threat to our devolved structures, in many ways the attitude of unionist leaders to the prospect of a nationalist first minister has become the elephant in the room.

The entire debate over the standing of the two most senior posts in the executive should really be academic, as first and deputy first ministers have always been legally of equal status.

However, since the institutions were created as a result of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, some unionists have tried to maintain the polite fiction that holding the first minister’s office somehow left them in the ascendancy.

Perhaps titles as joint first minister should have been in place from the start, but there was previously an argument that the arrangement quietly recognized unionists as then the largest grouping at Stormont.

Nationalists from firstly the SDLP and more recently from Sinn Féin accepted the position stoically, even when Ian Paisley misleadingly referred to Martin McGuinness as “my deputy”, but the days of a unionist majority at Parliament Buildings are long gone.

One poll after another in recent months has indicated that Michelle O’Neill is firmly in line to become first minister next year, and it is disturbing that the leaders of the DUP and the Ulster Unionists, Jeffrey Donaldson and Doug Beattie, have so far declined to confirm that their parties would be prepared to serve as deputy first minister in those circumstances.

Unionists are bound to have a cold view of Sinn Féin, but nationalists have also had good reason to regard the DUP with suspicion, and the principles of power sharing dictate that both sides have a duty to work constructively together within the executive while allowing the electorate to decide how the top posts should be allocated.

A Lucid Talk opinion survey published in the Belfast Telegraph at the weekend indicated that a clear majority of unionists want one of their representatives to serve as deputy first minister if Sinn Féin become the largest party, with the figure rising to an overwhelming 77 percent among Ulster Unionist supporters.

If both main unionist leaders prefer to walk away from Stormont, they cannot fail to have noticed that the same poll already found the most popular choice among voters for dealing with post-Brexit problems (36 percent) is creating a united Ireland and becoming part of the EU.