Does Stormont need to end designations?

12 Jan 2023 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 12 Jan 2023

Reforming Assembly and Executive structures has been suggested several times as a way to end the current impasse. Will that work, in theory or practice? Scope looks at one suggestion: weighted majority voting.


Politics has, as yet, provided no solutions to the Stormont deadlock.

The Assembly has no speaker and so cannot sit. There is no Executive, full stop. This is because the DUP – the biggest unionist party, and second biggest party overall – has a lot of power, and is refusing to allow any business to resume because of its opposition to the NI Protocol.

The ongoing collapse is not the first of its kind. In fact, the Executive has been in a state of collapse 40% of the time since the birth of the modern Assembly. Could changing how the institutions work bring about more stability?

Just before Christmas, Alliance MLA Kellie Armstrong reiterated her party’s frustration at the current impasse. She said that the Assembly should abandon its use of community designations and implement a system of weighted majority voting.

Would that work, in theory? What are the practical implications?

Current system

Under the current system of designations, all MLAs must label themselves as Unionist, Nationalist or Other. This is one part of the structures designed to avoid majority rule, and to steer Stormont towards cross-community decisions.

Designations are important for several reasons. They are the bedrock of forming an Executive along the lines of mandatory coalition. The First Minister and deputy First Minister are nominated by the largest parties in the largest and second-largest designations, with the larger of those two parties taking the (purely symbolic) title First Minister.

Currently, that would be Sinn Fein and the DUP. Because the DUP won’t nominate anyone for the position, we can’t have a First and deputy First Minister – which means we can’t have an Executive.

Another aspect of designations’ importance stems from their relationship to Petitions of Concern (PoC). PoCs can be tabled alongside any bill or motion, as long as they are supported by at least 30 MLAs and, once this happens, for the bill/motion to pass it must have cross-community support – i.e. the support of a majority of unionists and a majority of nationalists – rather than merely the support of a simple majority.

Designations (and PoCs) were a crude but strategically sensible compromise that sought to eliminate the possibility of unionist (or nationalist) majority rule in the Assembly, which would have undermined Stormont’s legitimacy.

They achieved that, but also led to several problems such as abuse of the PoC mechanism to block motions and bills that were not on community-sensitive issues and allowing for full-on collapses such as the current status quo.

So, designations have proved a necessity, a stumbling block and, at times, an impassable barrier.

Ms Armstrong suggested eliminating this system and moving to a weighted majority. What might this achieve?

Weight and see

First of all, restructuring is not an Alliance idea, per se. Virtually every political party has signalled an openness to Stormont reform (whether they would all have the same reforms in mind is a different matter).

Moreover, the structure of the institutions has changed in several ways in the 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement. Change is not taboo.

A weighted majority system is one wherein a simple 50% plus one vote is not necessarily enough to make a vote pass. There are lots of ways to achieve this.

One key point is that there is no essential need to get rid of designations to implement a weighted majority. In fact, they could work in tandem.

However, without significant change in how an Executive is formed, Northern Ireland will remain unlikely to have any government. Getting rid of designations means the process for forming an Executive would also have to change.

There are lots of potential ways to form an Executive – but the practical stumbling block would remain: Stormont is built on the idea it will pursue cross-community cooperation but the biggest unionist party by far is refusing to take part.

Changing the process to force them into government, or into opposition, or even into a Sinn-Fein-at-Westminster scenario where they refuse to take their seats – all those paths have pitfalls.

What about the legislature?


In 2017, former Sinn Fein MLA Daithi McKay wrote a piece for Slugger O’Toole looking at a 60% weighted majority for Stormont. A lot of his analysis is, in some ways, out of date as it is based on the number of MLAs each party had five years ago and things have changed a lot since then.

However, any new system shouldn’t be built because it seems to suit the current distribution of seats. Elections happen. Seat numbers change. A good system would enable representative debate and policymaking whatever emerges from the ballot box. What different systems are possible?

  • Mr McKay’s analysis looks at a weighted majority whereby the threshold for any bill or motion to pass is 60%. That is one way to do it, but its shortcomings are obvious. A motion with, say, 58% backing would be rejected, even when it is not a green-and-orange matter.
  • Another approach would be to designate bills and motions that are community sensitive, and have these require a 60% (or 65% - the numbers are flexible, the aim is balance, with the calculus being that a higher threshold means a bigger tradeaway of democratic norms in favour of minority protections). The problem here is that the act of designating a bill as sensitive would be contentious and, as with Petitions of Concern, could be open to abuse.
  • A third way would require the least change. Keep designations, keep petitions of concern – but allow those petitions to be overridden by either cross-community support (the current model) or an overall weighted majority (of 60%, for example). In some ways this is the most convoluted approach of all, despite involving the least change. It would place a series of different democratic compromises in tension, in a bid to both allow community protections but not allow those to be abused. This would also allow for the current system of Executive formation to remain, or to be altered so that it still encourages or necessitates cross-community cooperation but makes it harder for a single party or minority bloc to bring the whole thing down.


There are many different ways, beyond even those suggested above, that Stormont’s processes could be changed to allow the structures to be properly reinstituted and for some government to resume. However, it is important to not just be fixated on the present.

Just a few years ago, under the current model, the DUP were not only the majority unionist party – they also had enough MLAs to trigger a PoC on their own. This gave the party veto over bills and motions. That was a democratically difficult situation but, on the current numbers, that is no longer the case.

Right now Stormont’s 90 MLAs are split between 37 Unionists (25 DUP, 9 UUP, 1 TUV and 2 Independents), 35 Nationalists (27 Sinn Fein and 8 SDLP) and 18 Others (17 Alliance and 1 PBP).

You can crunch the numbers in lots of interesting ways to see how changing Stormont’s structures would change the outcomes of certain voting patterns. However, things get more interesting – and more complicated – when you consider how much things could change either through a different breakdown of seats (as can happen at any election) or by moving the needle on the, somewhat arbitrary, 60% threshold for a weighted majority. What about 65%? 55%? Etc etc. You could spend all week fiddling with plausible permutations.

Compromise on a compromise

The need to change political structures is paradoxical. In smoother times, there is no immediate reason to alter rules. When things grind to a halt, alterations might seem necessary – but impasses happen for a reason.

Gridlock means some political actors are using the extant rules to their own advantage. In today’s Stormont, the DUP (and TUV) are staging a maximal demonstration against the NI Protocol. Changing the rules now would allow them to cry foul, with valid reasons.

Non participation is a legitimate political platform (which doesn’t mean you have to like it). The DUP ran on such a platform and are delivering what they promised.

The difference between the DUP’s position and, for example, Sinn Fein’s pointed absences from Westminster is that Westminster goes on. But, while the DUP are happy to exploit this extra power they wield, that power isn’t the party’s fault, per se. Instead, it is a function of two things: their popularity with voters (which is a public endorsement of the party) and the structures themselves.

The fact that the DUP gets so many seats simply reflects how many votes they get. And, while the Protocol might be overall popular (if not beloved) with the NI public, it is deeply unpopular with DUP or unionist voters – while the party’s blockage of Stormont very much has the backing of those same people.

This gets to the heart of the matter. Stormont’s structures can be changed. Weighted majority voting could cure – or at least mitigate against – some of the biggest, long-term issues with Stormont’s problems. It is clear the legislative process could be improved.

Abandoning designations could both help the legislature and lead to the more consistent basic existence of an Executive. However, how would that Executive look and feel? What support would it have? For all the criticisms various Stormont governments have had over the years, one thing all Executives had going for them is a degree of broad representation.

What about the Executive?

A weighted majority, implemented right now, would presumably lead to the election of a speaker and the resumption of Assembly business.

But if the conditions around Executive formation were changed so that the DUP could no longer block formation of the government, this would lead to (somewhat justified) grumbling from the party about how structures were altered to undercut their political strategy. If the rules were changed, their direct action (or, more accurately, direct inaction) against the Protocol could be reduced to pure talk.

There is also no guarantee that the DUP would take part in any government. Their MLAs represent over a quarter of Stormont and over two thirds of political unionism. Such a major player not being involved in government would represent major change. That wouldn’t necessarily be a disaster, but it certainly would be different.

On the other hand, voters can and should feel entitled to a government. That’s democracy. Any citizen who would like to see an Assembly and Executive – because that’s what’s supposed to happen after you go to the polls – is fully entitled to feel aggrieved at how processes are being used to suffocate governance itself.

Stormont’s structures could be improved in several ways. This would be great for Northern Ireland. However, the best way to make such changes is with consent. Does consent seem likely, right now?

Some things that are great in theory are much trickier in practice.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to make them work – but it pays to consider all stumbling blocks before you find them at your feet.

Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.