Northern Ireland Assembly
|Northern Ireland Assembly |
Norlin Airlan Assemblie
Tionól Thuaisceart Éireann
Official Opposition (28)
Other Opposition (13)
|Salary||£48,000 per year + expenses|
|5 May 2016|
|5 May 2021|
|Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast|
The Northern Ireland Assembly (Irish: Tionól Thuaisceart Éireann, Ulster Scots: Norlin Airlan Assemblie) is the devolved legislature of Northern Ireland. It has power to legislate in a wide range of areas that are not explicitly reserved to the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and to appoint the Northern Ireland Executive. It sits at Parliament Buildings at Stormont in Belfast.
The Assembly is one of two "mutually inter-dependent" institutions created under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the other being the North/South Ministerial Council with the Republic of Ireland. The Agreement aimed at bringing an end to Northern Ireland's violent 30-year Troubles. The Assembly is a unicameral, democratically elected body currently comprising 108 members known as Members of the Legislative Assembly, or MLAs. Members are elected under the single transferable vote form of proportional representation. In turn, the Assembly selects most of the ministers of the Northern Ireland Executive using the principle of power-sharing under the D'Hondt method to ensure that Northern Ireland's largest voting blocs, unionists and Irish nationalists, both participate in governing the region.
The Assembly has been suspended on several occasions, the longest suspension being from 14 October 2002 until 7 May 2007. When the Assembly was suspended, its powers reverted to the Northern Ireland Office. Following talks that resulted in the St Andrews Agreement being accepted in November 2006, an election to the Assembly was held on 7 March 2007 and full power was restored to the devolved institutions on 8 May 2007.
Powers in relation to policing and justice were transferred to the Assembly on 12 April 2010. The third assembly was dissolved on 24 March 2011 in preparation for the elections to be held on Thursday 5 May 2011. This was the first assembly since the Good Friday Agreement to complete a full term. This was followed by a full fourth term. Following the May 2016 elections, the Assembly will convene for a fifth term.
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From 7 June 1921 until 30 March 1972, the devolved legislature for Northern Ireland was the Parliament of Northern Ireland. That Parliament consistently chose the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) to govern the region. The Parliament was suspended on 30 March 1972 and formally abolished in 1973 under the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973.
Shortly after this first parliament was abolished, attempts began to restore devolution on a new basis that would see power shared between Irish nationalists and unionists. To this end a new parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, was established in 1973. However, this body was brought down by the Ulster Workers' Council strike and was abolished in 1974. In 1982 another Northern Ireland Assembly was established at Stormont, initially as a body to scrutinise the actions of the Secretary of State, the British minister with responsibility for Northern Ireland. It received little support from Irish nationalists and was officially dissolved in 1986.
Current assembly and suspensions
The current incarnation of the Northern Ireland Assembly was first elected on 25 June 1998 and first met on 1 July 1998. However, it only existed in "shadow" form until 2 December 1999 when full powers were devolved to the Assembly. Since then the Assembly has operated intermittently and has been suspended on four occasions:
- 11 February – 30 May 2000
- 10 August 2001 (24-hour suspension)
- 22 September 2001 (24-hour suspension)
- 14 October 2002 – 7 May 2007
Attempts to secure its operation on a permanent basis have been frustrated by disagreements between the two main unionist parties (the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party) and Sinn Féin, the largest nationalist party. Unionists refused to participate in the Good Friday Agreement's institutions alongside Sinn Féin until they were assured that the IRA had discontinued its activities, decommissioned its arms and disbanded.
The most recent suspension occurred after unionists withdrew from the Northern Ireland Executive after Sinn Féin's offices at Stormont were raided by the police, who were investigating allegations of intelligence gathering on behalf of the IRA by members of the party's support staff. The Assembly, already suspended, dissolved on 28 April 2003 as scheduled, but the elections due the following month were postponed by the United Kingdom government and were not held until November that year.
On 8 December 2005, three Belfast men at the centre of the alleged IRA spying incident (dubbed "Stormontgate") were acquitted of all charges. The prosecution offered no evidence "in the public interest". Afterwards Denis Donaldson, one of those arrested, said that the charges "should never have been brought" as the police action was "political". On 17 December 2005, Donaldson publicly confirmed that he had been a spy for British intelligence since the early 1980s. Mr Donaldson was killed on 4 April 2006 by the Real IRA.
"The Assembly" and "the Transitional Assembly"
"The Assembly established under the Northern Ireland Act 2006"
Although the Assembly remained suspended from 2002 until 2007, the persons elected to it at the 2003 Assembly election were called together on 15 May 2006 under the Northern Ireland Act 2006 to meet in an assembly to be known as "the Assembly" (or fully "the Assembly established under the Northern Ireland Act 2006") for the purpose of electing a First Minister and Deputy First Minister and choosing the members of an Executive before 25 November 2006 as a preliminary to the restoration of devolved government.
On 23 May 2006 Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) refused Sinn Féin's nomination to be First Minister alongside Sinn Féin's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, as Deputy First Minister. Eileen Bell was appointed by the Secretary of State Peter Hain to be the Speaker of the Assembly, with Francie Molloy and Jim Wells acting as deputies. The Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 repealed the Northern Ireland Act 2006 and thus disbanded "the Assembly".
"The Transitional Assembly"
The Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 provided for a "Transitional Assembly" (or fully "the Transitional Assembly established under the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006") to take part in preparations for the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland. A person who was a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly was also a member of the Transitional Assembly. Eileen Bell was Speaker of the Transitional Assembly and Francie Molloy and Jim Wells continued as deputies. The Transitional Assembly first met on 24 November 2006, when the proceedings were suspended due to a bomb threat by loyalist paramilitary Michael Stone. It was dissolved on 30 January 2007 when the election campaign for the current Northern Ireland Assembly started.
An election to the then-suspended Northern Ireland Assembly was held on 7 March 2007. Secretary of State, Peter Hain signed a restoration order on 25 March 2007 allowing for the restoration of devolution at midnight on the following day. The two largest parties following the election, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin, agreed to enter power-sharing government together, and an administration was eventually established on 10 May with Ian Paisley as First Minister and Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister.
The Assembly's composition and powers are laid down in the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
The Assembly currently has 108 members (MLAs) elected from 18 six-member constituencies on the basis of universal adult suffrage. The constituencies used are the same as those used for elections to the United Kingdom Parliament at Westminster. With the Sixth Periodic Review of Westminster constituencies, the number of constituencies will be reduced from 18 to 17, and under the Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 the number of MLAs per constituency will be reduced from 6 to 5, resulting in a decrease of the number of MLAs from 108 to 85 in 2021.
The Northern Ireland Act 1998 provides that, unless the Assembly is dissolved early, elections should occur once every four years on the first Thursday in May although this is likely to change to bring the Assembly into line with electoral arrangements in other parts of the United Kingdom. The second election to the Assembly was delayed by the UK government until 26 November 2003. The Assembly is dissolved shortly before the holding of elections on a day chosen by the Secretary of State. After each election the Assembly must meet within eight days. The Assembly can vote to dissolve itself early by a two-thirds majority of the total number of its members. It is also automatically dissolved if it is unable to elect a First Minister and deputy First Minister (effectively joint first ministers, the only distinction being in the titles) within six weeks of its first meeting or of those positions becoming vacant. The five elections held to the Assembly so far were the:
- Northern Ireland Assembly election, 1998
- Northern Ireland Assembly election, 2003
- Northern Ireland Assembly election, 2007
- Northern Ireland Assembly election, 2011
- Northern Ireland Assembly election, 2016
Each MLA is free to designate themselves as "nationalist", "unionist", or "other", as they see fit, the only requirement being that no member may change their designation more than once during an Assembly session. The system has been criticised by some, in particular the cross-community Alliance Party, as entrenching sectarian divisions. The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland supports ending the official designation of identity requirement and the taking of important votes on the basis of an ordinary super-majority, as does the largest unionist party, the DUP.
Unlike the United Kingdom Parliament and the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament), the Assembly currently has no official opposition to hold governing parties to account. In each Assembly to date, the parties forming the Executive have collectively held large majorities but have frequently voted against each other due to political and/or policy differences.
During the 1998–2003 Assembly, the non-Executive parties (thus in opposition) were as follows:
- Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (6 seats)
- UK Unionist Party (5 seats reduced to 1 from 1999)
- Northern Ireland Unionist Party (4 seats from 1999)
- Progressive Unionist Party (2 seats)
- Northern Ireland Women's Coalition (2 seats)
The above parties held 15 seats at their full strength. In the 2003–2007 Assembly, the number of opposition MLAs was reduced to eight, from the following parties:
- Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (6 seats)
- UK Unionist Party (1 seat)
- Progressive Unionist Party (1 seat)
That number increased to nine at the 2007 Assembly election:
- Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (7 seats)
- Green Party in Northern Ireland (1 seat)
- Progressive Unionist Party (1 seat)
Alliance entered government on the devolution of policing and justice (12 April 2010), which left only the Green Party and Progressive Unionist Party as parties outside government. At the 2011 election, the PUP lost its one-seat, but Traditional Unionist Voice gained one seat. In 2012 a UUP MLA, David McNarry, was expelled from the party and later joined the UK Independence Party (UKIP). In 2013, two UUP MLAs Basil McCrea and John McCallister left the party, after opposing the decision to have a joint unionist candidate in the Mid-Ulster by-election. They later formed a new party NI21, which McCallister subsequently left. Thus, in the current Assembly, four very minor parties are in opposition with one seat each: NI21, Green Party, Traditional Unionist Voice and UKIP.
The Northern Ireland Act 1998 allowed for the possibility of by-elections or co-options. In 2001, the Northern Ireland Office introduced a system of substitutes as the preferred option. Under a further change made in 2009, a political party leader directly nominates a new MLA if his or her party won that seat at the previous election. Independent MLAs can continue to use substitutes. The following MLAs have been co-opted to the Assembly to date:
- Tom Hamilton (UUP, 22 January 2001; did not seek re-election)
- Raymond McCartney (Sinn Féin, 15 July 2004; elected 7 March 2007)
- Sue Ramsey (Sinn Féin, 29 November 2004; elected 7 March 2007)
- Marietta Farrell (SDLP, 9 January 2007; not re-elected)
- Dawn Purvis (PUP, 24 January 2007; elected 7 March 2007)
- Alastair Ross (DUP, 14 May 2007; elected 5 May 2011)
- Danny Kinahan (UUP, 9 June 2009; elected 5 May 2011)
- Billy Leonard (Sinn Féin, 7 January 2010; did not seek re-election)
- Jonathan Bell (DUP, 25 January 2010; elected 5 May 2011)
- Conall McDevitt (SDLP, 21 January 2010; elected 5 May 2011)
- Paul Givan (DUP, 10 June 2010; elected 5 May 2011)
- Paul Frew (DUP, 21 June 2010; elected 5 May 2011)
- Sydney Anderson (DUP, 1 July 2010; elected 5 May 2011)
- Paul Girvan (DUP, 1 July 2010; elected 5 May 2011)
- Chris Lyttle (Alliance, 5 July 2010; elected 5 May 2011)
- Simpson Gibson (DUP, 2 August 2010; did not seek re-election)
- William Humphrey (DUP, 13 September 2010; elected 5 May 2011)
- Pól Callaghan (SDLP, 15 November 2010; not re-elected)
- Pat Sheehan (Sinn Féin, 7 December 2010; elected 5 May 2011)
When Sinn Féin MLA Michael Ferguson died in September 2006, no substitutes were available. Sinn Féin was allowed to use his vote in the Assembly (despite his death) and no by-election was held. His seat remained vacant until the 2007 Northern Ireland Assembly election.
Powers and functions
The Assembly has both legislative powers and responsibility for electing the Northern Ireland Executive. The First and deputy First Ministers were initially elected on a cross-community vote, although this was changed in 2006 and they are now appointed as leaders of the largest and second largest Assembly 'block' (understood to mean 'Unionist', 'Nationalist' and 'Other'). However the remaining ministers are not elected but are chosen by the nominating officers of each party, each party being entitled to a share of ministerial positions roughly proportionate to its share of seats in the Assembly. The Assembly has authority to legislate in a field of competences known as "transferred matters". These matters are not explicitly given in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Rather they include any competence not explicitly retained by the Parliament at Westminster.
Powers reserved by Westminster are divided into "excepted matters", which it retains indefinitely, and "reserved matters", which may be transferred to the competence of the Northern Ireland Assembly at a future date. A list of transferred, reserved and excepted matters is given below.
While the Assembly was in suspension, its legislative powers were exercised by the UK Government, which governs through procedures at Westminster. Laws that would have normally been within the competence of the Assembly were passed by the UK Parliament in the form of Orders-in-Council rather than Acts of the Assembly.
Acts of the Northern Ireland Assembly as with other subordinate legislatures are subject to judicial review. A law can be struck down if it is found to:
- exceed the competences of the Assembly;
- violate European Union law;
- violate the European Convention on Human Rights; or
- discriminate against individuals on the grounds of political opinion or religious belief.
A transferred matter is defined as "any matter which is not an excepted or reserved matter". There is therefore no full listing of transferred matters but they have been grouped into the responsibilities of the Northern Ireland Executive ministers. The current Executive is as follows:
|First Minister||Arlene Foster||DUP|
|Deputy First Minister||Martin McGuinness||Sinn Féin|
|Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs||Michelle McIlveen||DUP|
|Finance||Máirtín Ó Muilleoir||Sinn Féin|
|Health||Michelle O'Neill||Sinn Féin|
|Infrastructure||Chris Hazzard||Sinn Féin|
Two junior ministers in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister are not members of the Executive but also attend Executive meetings.
|Junior Minister (assisting the First Minister)||Alastair Ross||DUP|
|Junior Minister (assisting the Deputy First Minister)||Megan Fearon||Sinn Féin|
Reserved matters are outlined in Schedule 3 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998:
- Navigation (including merchant shipping)
- Civil aviation
- The foreshore, sea bed and subsoil and their natural resources
- Postal services
- Import and export controls, external trade
- National minimum wage
- Financial services
- Financial markets
- Intellectual property
- Units of measurement
- Telecommunications, Broadcasting, Internet services
- The National Lottery
- Human fertilisation and embryology
- Human genetics
- Consumer safety in relation to goods
Excepted matters are outlined in Schedule 2 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998:
- The Crown
- International relations
- Immigration and Nationality
- National insurance
- National security
- Nuclear energy
- Outer space
- Activities in Antarctica
The Assembly has three primary mechanisms to ensure effective power-sharing:
- in appointing ministers to the Executive (except for the Minister of Justice), the d'Hondt system is followed so that ministerial portfolios are divided among the parties in proportion to their strength in the Assembly. This means that all parties with a significant number of seats are entitled to at least one minister;
- certain resolutions must receive "cross community support", or the support of a minimum number of MLAs from both communities, to be passed by the Assembly. Every MLA is officially designated as either nationalist, unionist or other. The election of the Speaker, any changes to the standing orders and the adoption of certain money bills must all occur with cross-community support. The election of the First and Deputy First Ministers previously occurred by parallel consent but the positions are now filled by appointment; and
- any vote taken by the Assembly can be made dependent on cross-community support if a petition of concern is presented to the Speaker. A petition of concern may be brought by 30 or more MLAs. In such cases, a vote on proposed legislation will only pass if supported by a weighted majority (60%) of members voting, including at least 40% of each of the nationalist and unionist designations present and voting. Effectively this means that, provided enough MLAs from a given community agree, that community (or a sufficiently large party in that community) can exercise a veto over the Assembly's decisions . The purpose is to protect each community from legislation that would favour the other community.
The Assembly has the power to call for witnesses and documents, if the relevant responsibility has been transferred to its remit. Proceedings are covered by privilege in defamation law.
Each MLA is free to designate themselves as nationalist, unionist or other as they see fit, the only requirement being that no member may change their designation more than once during an Assembly session.
The community designation system has been criticised by the cross-community Alliance Party, as entrenching sectarian divisions. The Alliance Party supports ending the official requirement to make a designation based on identity and instead proposes the taking of important votes on the basis of an ordinary super-majority.
The Assembly is chaired by the Speaker and three Deputy Speakers, of whom one is appointed Principal Deputy Speaker. Lord Alderdice served as the first Speaker of the Assembly from July 1998, but retired in March 2004 to serve as a member of the Independent Monitoring Commission that supervised paramilitary ceasefires. The position was filled from 2007 until 13 October 2014 by William Hay, but has since been succeeded by Mitchel McLaughlin. In the Assembly, the Speaker and ten other members constitute a quorum.
The Assembly Commission is the body corporate of the Assembly with all that that entails, It looks after the pay and pensions of members directly and through tax-payer funded appointees, and, the interests of political parties. The very first bill of the Assembly was to do with members' pensions and was taken through with minimum ado by a member of the Commission.
The Assembly has chosen to have 12 statutory committees, each of which is charged with scrutinising the activities of a single ministerial department. It also has 6 permanent standing committees and can establish temporary ad hoc committees. The Chairmen and Deputy Chairmen of the committees are chosen by party nominating officers under the d'Hondt system procedure, used to appoint most ministers. Ordinary committee members are not appointed under this procedure but the Standing Orders require that the share of members of each party on a committee should be roughly proportionate to its share of seats in the Assembly. Committees of the Assembly take decisions by a simple majority vote. The following are the current statutory and standing committees of the Assembly:
Statutory (departmental) committees
- Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee
- Communities Committee
- Economy Committee
- Education Committee
- Finance Committee
- Health Committee
- Infrastructure Committee
- Justice Committee
- Committee for the Executive Office
- Assembly and Executive Review Committee
- Audit Committee
- Business Committee
- Procedures Committee
- Public Accounts Committee
- Standards and Privileges Committee
- Member of the Legislative Assembly (Northern Ireland)
- Scottish Parliament
- National Assembly for Wales
- "Comhaontú idir Rialtas na hÉireann agus Rialtas Ríocht Aontaithe na Breataine Móire agus Thuaisceart Éireann ag Bunú Comhlachtaí Forfheidhmithe" (in Irish). Oireachtas. Retrieved 8 June 2008.
- Christine Bell (2003), Peace Agreements and Human Rights, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 141,
The agreement makes it clear that the North-South Ministerial Council and the Northern Ireland Assembly are 'mutually inter-dependent, and that one cannot successfully function without the other'. This interdependence is constructed so as to ensure that nationalists and unionists cannot 'cherrypick' the aspects of government that they particularly want to implement. Thus, unionists only get the Assembly and devolved power if they operate the cross-border mechanisms, and for nationalists the situation is reversed.
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- Official website
- The St Andrews' Agreement The latest attempt to restore devolution to Northern Ireland.
- Northern Ireland Act 1998 – Full text.
- Standing Orders of the Northern Ireland Assembly - HTML and PDF versions available on the Northern Ireland Assembly.
- Northern Ireland Assembly awards outsourcing contract, brayleinobroadskill.co.uk; accessed 14 May 2016. website.