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First Minister and deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

First Minister and deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland
Arlene Foster MLA
Michelle O'Neill MLA

since 11 January 2020
AppointerNorthern Ireland Assembly
Term lengthAt the discretion of the single largest party in each of the two largest community designations within the Northern Ireland Assembly
Inaugural holder
Formation1 July 1998
£120,000 each
(includes MLA salary) [1]

The First Minister and deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland are the joint heads of government of the Northern Ireland Executive and have overall responsibility for the running of the Executive Office.

The two positions have the same governmental power, resulting in a duumvirate; despite the name, the deputy First Minister is not subordinate to the First Minister. Created under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, both were initially nominated and appointed by members of the Northern Ireland Assembly on a joint ticket by a cross-community vote, using consociational principles. That process was changed following the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, meaning that the First Minister and deputy First Minister are now nominated separately by the largest parties in each of the two largest community designations in the assembly.


The First Minister and deputy First Minister share equal responsibilities within government, and their decisions are made jointly. The First Minister is, though, the first to greet official visitors to Northern Ireland and shares the same title as their counterparts in Scotland and Wales.

Specifically, they are tasked with co-chairing meetings of the Northern Ireland Executive, "dealing with and co-ordinating" the work of the Executive, and the response of the administration to external relationships.[2]

The First Minister and deputy First Minister agree the agenda of Executive meetings[3] and can jointly determine "significant or controversial matters" to be considered by the Executive.[4]

The ministers' policy responsibilities include:[5]

Two junior ministers assist the First Minister and deputy First Minister in carrying out the work of OFMDFM.[6] They are jointly accountable to the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The incumbent junior ministers were Gordon Lyons (Democratic Unionist Party) and Declan Kearney (Sinn Féin).


As originally established under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the First Minister was elected by the Assembly on a joint ticket with the deputy First Minister through a cross-community vote. It was created to enable the leaders of the main unionist and nationalist parties to work together, with guaranteed joint representation of both main communities. For the purposes of a cross-community vote, MLAs were designated as unionist, nationalist, or other.

The nominees for First Minister and deputy First Minister required the support of:

  • a majority of the MLAs voting in the election overall;
  • a majority of the designated unionist MLAs voting; and
  • a majority of the designated nationalist MLAs voting.[7]

This procedure was used on 2 December 1999 to elect David Trimble (Ulster Unionist Party, UUP) and Seamus Mallon (Social Democratic and Labour Party, SDLP). Following several suspensions of the Northern Ireland Executive, Trimble was not re-elected on 2 November 2001 due to opposition from other unionist parties. He was subsequently re-elected alongside Mark Durkan (SDLP) on 6 November 2001; on that occasion, three Alliance Party of Northern Ireland MLAs redesignated from 'other' to 'unionist' to support Trimble's nomination.[8]

Following the St Andrews Agreement in October 2006, the appointment procedure was changed to allow for:

  • a First Minister nominated by the largest party of the largest designation;[9]
  • a deputy First Minister nominated by the largest party of the second largest designation.[10]

This procedure, which removed the need for a joint ticket between the unionist Democratic Unionist Party and the nationalist Sinn Féin party, was used to appoint Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness on 8 May 2007. It was again used to appoint Peter Robinson (DUP) alongside McGuinness on 5 June 2008 and again on 12 May 2011; and to appoint Arlene Foster (DUP) alongside McGuinness on 11 January 2016.

The new rules from 2006 also state that, if the largest party of the largest designation happens not to also be the largest party in the assembly overall, then the appointment procedure would be as follows:

  • a First Minister nominated by the largest party overall;
  • a deputy First Minister nominated by the largest party of the largest designation.[11]

As of 2020, this latter method has never yet been used.

The Minister of Justice is now the only Northern Ireland Executive minister elected by cross-community vote. All other ministers are party appointees, with parties taking turns using the D'Hondt method.[12]


The First Minister or deputy First Minister may also appoint another Northern Ireland Executive Minister to exercise the functions of the office during a vacancy; currently for a continuous period up to six weeks.[13][14]

Vacancies have occurred on four occasions to date:

First Minister
Deputy First Minister


Titles in Irish and Ulster Scots

In the Irish language, the literal translation of these positions is "Céad-Aire agus an leas Chéad-Aire". The titles appear in both English and Irish in published literature by the North-South Ministerial Council, one of the "mutually inter-dependent" institutions laid out in the Good Friday Agreement, along with the Northern Ireland Assembly.[15]

Various ways of translating the titles "First Minister and deputy First Minister" into the Ulster Scots dialects have been attested in official communications, including Heid Männystèr an tha Heid Männystèr depute, First Meinister an First Meinister depute,[16][17] First Meenister an First Meenister depute[18] and First Minister an First Minister depute.[19]

Capitalisation of "deputy"

The second position has been spelt "Deputy" or "deputy" First Minister, due to differing preferences by civil servants (and potentially ministers), although the spelling of the title has no constitutional consequences in practice.

The first two holders of the office, Seamus Mallon and Mark Durkan, were both referred to during their periods of office as "Deputy First Minister", with a capital D. In the Good Friday Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement, which established the executive in Northern Ireland, the two positions are spelt "First Minister and Deputy First Minister" (with a capital D).[20] This was also adopted in 1999 for the logo of the OFMDFM. Several weeks after Martin McGuinness took up office as Deputy First Minister in 2007, civil servants in his department began asking the Assembly's Hansard team to replace the capital D with a lower-case d, pointing out that the title was spelled this way in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the legislation which established the office. Some believe that the case was changed to highlight the fact that the position holds the same power as the position of First Minister, but a spokesman for McGuinness said that neither McGuinness nor his advisers had asked for the change. Speaker William Hay ordered the change and the capital D was dropped from Hansard references.

Officials edited the department's archive of press releases to make that change (despite its use by Mallon and Durkan when in office) but the capital D still appears in some places, and a spokesman confirmed on 20 March 2008 that the office had "no plans" to change the OFMDFM logo. However, the Assembly committee that scrutinises their work is now listed as the "Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister". Ultimately it was decided that McGuinness should be the deputy First Minister, unless all the other letters in the title are in capitals. Confusion isn't completely resolved however; if McGuinness wrote to the Assembly committee that scrutinised his work, his note would have a letterhead that comes from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, but he would get a reply back from the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.[21]

In official language, the positions are sometimes abbreviated to FM/dFM,[22]

Alternative titles for the deputy First Minister

Sinn Féin started using the phrases "Joint First Minister" and "Co-First Minister" in 2009 to describe the deputy First Minister to highlight the fact that the First Minister and deputy First Minister operated in tandem. Martin McGuinness used the term Joint First Minister himself when he arrived for a meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council in February 2009; the DUP denounced the term as "republican speak" and it is not used in legislation.[23][24] Jim Allister, the leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice, has long been calling Robinson and McGuinness "the joint first ministers", to highlight the joint nature of the office and to demonstrate his opposition to the power-sharing arrangements.[23]

With the restoration of power sharing in 2020 Sinn Féin started describing the position as "joint head of government".[25]


Alex Salmond (right) meets Ian Paisley (centre) and Martin McGuinness in 2008.
Alex Salmond (right) meets Ian Paisley (centre) and Martin McGuinness in 2008.

Following a referendum on the Belfast Agreement on 23 May 1998 and subsequent the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Northern Ireland Assembly was established in 1998 with a view to assuming devolved powers from the Westminster Parliament. On 1 July 1998, David Trimble (UUP) and Seamus Mallon (SDLP) were nominated and elected First Minister and Deputy First Minister designates respectively. Eventually, on 2 December 1999, power was devolved and Trimble and Mallon formally took office as joint heads of the Northern Ireland Executive.

On 6 November 2001, Mark Durkan (SDLP) became Deputy First Minister after Seamus Mallon's retirement. The Executive and the two positions were suspended between 15 October 2002 and 8 May 2007 following a breakdown in trust between the parties.

On 8 May 2007, Ian Paisley (DUP) and Martin McGuinness (Sinn Féin) were nominated and appointed First Minister and Deputy First Minister respectively in line with the announcement by their two parties on 26 March 2007.

Paisley announced his intention to resign on 4 March 2008.[26] His deputy as DUP leader, Peter Robinson was ratified as Democratic Unionist Party leader designate on 17 April 2008[27] and took office in that role on 31 May 2008. As leader-designate of the largest designated unionist party in the Northern Ireland Assembly he was also in effect the First Minister designate and became First Minister on 5 June 2008. Arlene Foster succeeded Peter Robinson as DUP leader on 18 December 2015, and as First Minister on 11 January 2016.[28]

Separately, between 12 February 2000[29] and 30 May 2000,[30] and 15 October 2002[31] and 8 May 2007,[32] however, devolution was suspended, and along with it the offices of First Minister and deputy First Minister. The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister became the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. There were also two 24-hour periods of suspension on 11 August 2001[33][34] and 22 September 2001.[35][36] to allow timetables for negotiation to restart.[37] Devolution was suspended from 10 January 2017 to 10 January 2020.[38]

First Ministers and deputy First Ministers


  Ulster Unionist Party   Social Democratic and Labour Party   Democratic Unionist Party   Sinn Féin

First Minister of Northern Ireland deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Government Elections
Portrait Term of office Name
Portrait Term of office
David Trimble
Upper Bann
David Trimble.jpg
1 July 1998 1 July 2001 Seamus Mallon
Newry and Armagh
Seamus Mallon speaking at John Hewitt International Summer School 2017.png
1 July 1998 6 November 2001 First Executive 1998
Reg Empey was acting First Minister during this interval.
6 November 2001 14 October 2002 Mark Durkan
6 November 2001 14 October 2002
Office vacant
Ian Paisley
North Antrim
8 May 2007 5 June 2008 Martin McGuinness
Mid Ulster
Martin McGuinness in Jan 2017 (cropped).jpg
8 May 2007 20 September 2011 Second Executive 2007
Peter Robinson
Belfast East
Peter Robinson MLA DUP.jpg
5 June 2008 11 January 2010
Arlene Foster was acting First Minister during this interval.
3 February 2010 10 September 2015
Third Executive 2011
John O'Dowd was acting deputy First Minister during this interval.
31 October 2011 9 January 2017
Arlene Foster was acting First Minister during this interval.
20 October 2015 11 January 2016
Arlene Foster
Fermanagh and South Tyrone
MLA Arlene Foster.jpg
11 January 2016 9 January 2017 Fourth Executive 2016
Office vacant
Arlene Foster
Fermanagh and South Tyrone
MLA Arlene Foster.jpg
11 January 2020 Incumbent Michelle O'Neill
Mid Ulster
Michelle O'Neill (cropped from Martin McGuinness, Michelle O'Neill, Mary Lou McDonald and Gerry Adams).jpg
11 January 2020 Incumbent Fifth Executive

Direct Rule First Ministers

During the periods of suspension, the Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland assumed the responsibilities of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

Name Photo Party Term start Term end
John Reid
Official portrait of Lord Reid of Cardowan, 2020.jpg
Labour 14 October 2002 24 October 2002
Paul Murphy
Official portrait of Lord Murphy of Torfaen 2020 crop 2.jpg
Labour 24 October 2002 6 May 2005
Peter Hain
Official portrait of Lord Hain crop 2, 2019.jpg
Labour 6 May 2005 8 May 2007


Michelle O'NeillJohn O'DowdArlene FosterPeter Robinson (Northern Ireland politician)Martin McGuinnessIan PaisleyPeter HainPaul Murphy, Baron Murphy of TorfaenJohn Reid, Baron Reid of CardowanMark DurkanSeamus MallonReg EmpeyDavid Trimble

See also


  1. ^ "Members' Salaries 2013-2014". Members' Expenses. Northern Ireland Assembly. Retrieved 20 June 2015.
  2. ^ "Section 2.2". Ministerial Code. Northern Ireland Executive. Retrieved 18 October 2011.
  3. ^ "Section 2.11". Ministerial Code. Northern Ireland Executive. Retrieved 18 October 2011.
  4. ^ "Section 2.3 (vii)". Ministerial Code. Northern Ireland Executive. Retrieved 18 October 2011.
  5. ^ "Section 2.4". Ministerial Code. Northern Ireland Executive. Retrieved 18 October 2011.
  6. ^ Section 19, Northern Ireland Act 1998
  7. ^ Section 16(3), Northern Ireland Act 1998 (as enacted)
  8. ^ "Scuffles as Trimble re-elected". BBC News. 6 November 2001. Retrieved 20 October 2011.
  9. ^ Section 16A(4), Northern Ireland Act 1998 (as amended)
  10. ^ Section 16A(5), Northern Ireland Act 1998 (as amended)
  11. ^ Section 16C(6), Northern Ireland Act 1998 (as amended)
  12. ^ Section 21A(3A), Northern Ireland Act 1998 (as amended)
  13. ^ Section 16(5), Northern Ireland Act 1998 (as enacted)
  14. ^ Section 16A(11), Northern Ireland Act 1998 (as amended)
  15. ^
  16. ^ North/South Ministerial Council: 2011 Annual Report, Ulster Scots
  17. ^ North-South Ministerial Council: 2010 Annual Report, Ulster Scots Archived 27 February 2013 at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ North/South Ministerial Council: 2009 Annual Report, Ulster Scots Archived 1 April 2014 at the Wayback Machine
  19. ^ North/South Ministerial Council: 2008 Annual Report, Ulster Scots Archived 29 August 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  20. ^ "The Belfast Agreement". 18 November 2008. Retrieved 30 June 2017.
  21. ^ "Martin's D-lemma: lowering the case of the minister's title took top aides weeks". Belfast Telegraph. 21 March 2008. Archived from the original on 13 October 2012. Retrieved 1 May 2008.
  22. ^ "Letter from the First Minister and deputy First Minister". First Report on the Arrangements for the Devolution of Policing and Justice Matters. Northern Ireland Assembly. 18 November 2008. Retrieved 5 December 2011.
  23. ^ a b Are all things created equal? BBC News, 17 February 2009
  24. ^ Our conjoined ministers BBC News - The Devenport Diaries, 19 February 2009
  25. ^ Gerry Moriarty (2 April 2020). "'It's Sinn Féin against the rest': NI Executive in conflict over coronavirus". The Irish Times. Retrieved 29 May 2020.
  26. ^ Paisley to quit as first minister BBC News, 4 March 2008
  27. ^ Robinson confirmed as DUP leader BBC News, 17 April 2008
  28. ^ [1]
  29. ^ Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Commencement) Order 2000 S.I. 2000/396.
  30. ^ Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Restoration of Devolved Government) Order 2000 2000/1446.
  31. ^ Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) Order 2002 S.I. 2002/2574
  32. ^ The Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Restoration of Devolved Government) Order 2007 S.I. 2007/1397.
  33. ^ Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) Order 2001 S.I. 2001/2884.
  34. ^ Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Restoration of Devolved Government) Order 2001 S.I. 2001/2895.
  35. ^ Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) (No.2) Order 2001 S.I. 2001/3230.
  36. ^ Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Restoration of Devolved Government) (No.2) Order 2001 S.I. 2001/3231.
  37. ^ "Northern Ireland chronology: 2001". BBC News. 9 April 2003. Retrieved 15 March 2011.
  38. ^ Northern Ireland Assembly to reopen after three years of suspension 2020-01-10

External links

This page was last edited on 5 April 2021, at 01:15
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