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Political parties in NI are classified as unionist, nationalist, or other. The DUP is unionist, and Sinn Féin is nationalist. The centrist Alliance is other, as is the far-left People Before Profit. Below is the composition of the assembly.

Party Seats Designation
Sinn Féin 27 N
DUP 25 U
Alliance 17 O
UUP 9 U
SDLP 8 N
TUV 1 U
PBP 1 O
Independent Unionist 2 U

The devolved government must include both nationalists and unionists. But who decides which party is what? If the Alliance wanted to game the system, change their designation to unionist, and invite the UUP MLAs to cross the floor, they would be the largest unionist party. They'd then be able to form a government alongside Sinn Féin - or would there still be some obstacle?

I realise a party may not wish to change its designation, but if it wants to, what are its limitations?

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A party’s designation is decided under section 16C, subsection 3 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which states:

For the purposes of sections 16A and 16B and this section, a political party to which one or more members of the Assembly belong is to be taken—

  • (a) to be of the political designation “Nationalist” if, at the relevant time (see subsection (11)), more than half of the members of the Assembly who belonged to the party were designated Nationalists;

  • (b) to be of the political designation “Unionist” if, at the relevant time, more than half of the members of the Assembly who belonged to the party were designated Unionists;

  • (c) otherwise, to be of the political designation “Other”.

So in order for the Alliance party to change its designation to “Unionist”, more than half of its 17 MLAs would have to change their designation first. There are provisions in the Assembly’s standing orders by which a member may change their designation, but they’re pretty limiting - see section 3A subsection 3:

A member may change his or her political designation only if—

  • (a) (being a member of a political party) he or she becomes a member of a different political party or he or she ceases to be a member of any political party;
  • (b) (not being a member of any political party) he or she becomes a member of a political party.

So the party would have to do some sort of weird juggling whereby they expel and readmit members to allow them to change designation.

However, even if they did this, subsection 11 referenced in the excerpt from the Northern Ireland Act above defines “relevant time”:

In this section “the relevant time” means the end of the day on which the Assembly first met following its election.

So even if the Alliance party MLAs all changed their individual designation mid-term, the party’s overall designation would remain as “Other” until the first meeting of the Assembly after the next election. At this point, it would technically be possible for Alliance to have all its members sign up as unionists, invite the Ulster Unionists to switch party, and join Sinn Féin in government, but realistically this course of events is extremely unlikely.

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  • Thanks. Looks like old John Hume and co saw me coming. Am I correct that there has to be a coalition between the biggest unionist and the biggest nationalist party? A coalition between SF, APNI and UUP would have a majority and have both factions in it - but there must be a reason why they haven't done that.
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 16:45
  • @NeMo The party that gets to choose the First Minister has to be the largest party from the largest designation, and the party that chooses the Deputy FM has to be the largest party from the second largest designation - unless the former isn’t the largest party overall; as currently. In that case, the largest party overall gets to choose the FM - in this case SF - and the largest party from the largest designation gets to pick the Deputy - in this case the DUP. So any coalition really has to include those two parties :)
    – CDJB
    Commented Oct 3, 2022 at 19:36
  • A good answer, but for completeness it would be useful if you specified how individual members' alignment is originally decided (do they fill in a form when first elected or when standing? is it based on party affiliation? is there some other method of judging it?). Could a party get a whole new slate of candidates and switch affiliation at the same time?
    – Stuart F
    Commented Oct 5, 2022 at 13:33

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