Stormont rules should be urgently reformed so that a speaker can be elected by a two-thirds majority of MLAs, a Westminster committee has recommended.
The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has also proposed that the same threshold should be used to elect first and deputy first ministers.
As part of a raft of proposals which the committee said would assist in restoring and stabilising the powersharing institutions, it also recommends rebranding the first minister roles and making them open to politicians from beyond the largest unionist and nationalist parties.
The DUP has been blocking powersharing at Stormont for more than 18 months in protest at trade barriers created by post-Brexit arrangements. The party has been involved in negotiations with the UK government about the Windsor Framework and is seeking further assurances, by way of legislation, over Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market.
Senior civil servants have been left in charge of devolved departments, and the Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris had to intervene to set a budget.
During the lengthy hiatus, the DUP has blocked several attempts to elect a speaker, which is required before ministers can be nominated to form an executive.
The Westminster committee has been carrying out an investigation into the effectiveness of the institutions of the Belfast Agreement, which created the Stormont Assembly. Under current rules, votes from a majority of MLAs within both the nationalist and unionist traditions are needed to secure the posts of speaker, and first and deputy first ministers.
The report adds that, in recognition of their equal status, the roles should be rebranded as “joint first ministers” with the position open to any two MLAs of any two parties rather than just the largest parties.
Under current rules, Sinn Féin’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill is entitled to claim the position of first minister as her party emerged with the largest number of MLAs following last year’s Assembly elections.
During evidence sessions, the committee heard that with the growth of the proportion of Northern Ireland society identifying as neither unionist nor nationalist since the agreement, “supermajority” voting would “effectively equate to cross-community consent”.
The committee said the changes would require consultation with the Irish Government as co-guarantors to the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, as well as the parties of Northern Ireland.
“When Stormont collapses critical public services are cast adrift,” committee chair Sir Robert Buckland said. “Health, education, policing – all are feeling the strain while important decisions go unmade, and the people of Northern Ireland suffer.
“More stringent safeguards are needed to protect against the cycle of restoration and collapse that has dogged Stormont.”
The Stormont powersharing institutions have been collapsed on several occasions previous to the current political impasse, including by Sinn Féin in 2017 in protest at the DUP’s handling of a green energy scheme. On that occasion the institutions remained dormant for three years.