Northern Ireland Assembly

For earlier bodies of the same name, see Northern Ireland Assembly (disambiguation).
Northern Ireland Assembly
Norlin Airlan Assemblie
Tionól Thuaisceart Éireann
Fifth Assembly
Coat of arms or logo
Robin Newton, DUP
Since 12 May 2016
Seats 108
political groups

Executive (67)

Official Opposition (28)

  •      UUP (16) (U)
  •      SDLP (12) (N)

Other Opposition (13)

Salary £48,000 per year + expenses
last election
5 May 2016
next election
5 May 2021
Meeting place
Assembly Chamber
Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast

The Northern Ireland Assembly (Irish: Tionól Thuaisceart Éireann,[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] This was followed by a full fourth term.[6] Following the May 2016 elections, the Assembly will convene for a fifth term.


This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
Northern Ireland

Previous legislatures

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:

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.[7] 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"[8] (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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11] 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.[4]


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.[12][13] 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 [14] 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:

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.[15]

Shows the proportion of seats obtained at each election to the Northern Ireland Assembly by those members designated as Unionist, those members designated as Nationalist and those members designated as Other.

Opposition parties

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:

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:

That number increased to nine at the 2007 Assembly election:

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,[16] which McCallister subsequently left.[17] Thus, in the current Assembly, four very minor parties are in opposition with one seat each: NI21, Green Party, Traditional Unionist Voice and UKIP.


Vacancies between Assembly elections are filled by co-option. A by-election is still available as an option if the nominated person cannot take his or her seat but none have been held.[18]

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 allowed for the possibility of by-elections or co-options.[19] In 2001, the Northern Ireland Office introduced a system of substitutes as the preferred option.[20] 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.[21] The following MLAs have been co-opted to the Assembly to date:

This list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it.

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.[22][23] His seat remained vacant until the 2007 Northern Ireland Assembly election.

The lower house of the Irish Parliament, Dáil Éireann, uses the same single transferable vote system for elections as the Assembly but does allow by-elections to fill vacancies.

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:

Transferred matters

A transferred matter is defined as "any matter which is not an excepted or reserved matter".[24] 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:[25]

Portfolio Minister Party
First Minister     Arlene Foster DUP
Deputy First Minister     Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin
Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs     Michelle McIlveen DUP
Communities     Paul Givan DUP
Economy     Simon Hamilton DUP
Education     Peter Weir DUP
Finance     Máirtín Ó Muilleoir Sinn Féin
Health     Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin
Infrastructure     Chris Hazzard Sinn Féin
Justice     Claire Sugden Independent

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.

Portfolio MinisterParty
Junior Minister (assisting the First Minister)     Alastair Ross DUP
Junior Minister (assisting the Deputy First Minister)     Megan Fearon Sinn Féin

Reserved matters

Reserved matters are outlined in Schedule 3 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998:[26]

Excepted matters

Excepted matters are outlined in Schedule 2 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998:[27]


The Assembly has three primary mechanisms to ensure effective power-sharing:

The Assembly has the power to call for witnesses and documents, if the relevant responsibility has been transferred to its remit.[32] Proceedings are covered by privilege in defamation law.[33]

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.

Reform proposals

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

Standing committees

See also


  1. "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.
  2. 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.
  3. Whyte, Nicholas. "The Single Transferable Vote (STV)". Northern Ireland Elections. Retrieved 28 June 2016.
  4. 1 2 "Historic return for NI Assembly". BBC News Online. BBC. 8 May 2007. Retrieved 8 May 2007.
  5. "Ian Paisley retires as NI Assembly completes historical first full term". BBC News. 25 March 2011.
  6. Archived 13 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine.
  7. Martina Purdy. "Stormont conspiracy theories continue". Retrieved 28 October 2008.
  8. "Northern Ireland Act 2006 (c. 17)". Retrieved 28 October 2008.
  9. "The Assembly – Main Page". Retrieved 28 October 2008.
  10. "Stone held over Stormont attack". BBC News Online. BBC. 24 November 2006. Retrieved 8 May 2007.
  11. "Parties face deadline at Stormont". BBC News Online. BBC. 26 March 2007. Retrieved 8 May 2007.
  12. Section 33 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998
  13. "FAQs". Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland. Retrieved 10 April 2014.
  16. "NI21 to offer opposition: Basil McCrea and John McCallister". BBC News.
  17. "John McCallister confirms NI21 exit". BBC News.
  18. "Article 7, Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001". 22 June 2012. Retrieved 26 May 2013.
  19. "Section 35, Northern Ireland Act 1998". Retrieved 26 May 2013.
  20. "Article 6, Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001". 22 June 2012. Retrieved 26 May 2013.
  21. "Article 6, Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2009". 15 August 2012. Retrieved 26 May 2013.
  22. "Deceased MLA's vote still counts". BBC Northern Ireland News. 16 November 2006. Retrieved 12 November 2011.
  23. "Section 17, Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006". 26 March 2007. Retrieved 26 May 2013.
  24. "Section 4(1), Part I, Northern Ireland Act 1998". 25 June 1998. Retrieved 26 May 2013.
  25. "Your Executive - Ministers and their departments". Northern Ireland Executive. 2015. Retrieved 27 May 2015.
  26. "Northern Ireland Act 1998, Schedule 3". 25 June 1998. Retrieved 26 May 2013.
  27. "Northern Ireland Act 1998, Schedule 2". 25 June 1998. Retrieved 26 May 2013.
  28. McEvoy, Joanne (2006). "The institutional design of executive formation in Northern Ireland". Regional & Federal Studies. 16 (4): 447–464. doi:10.1080/13597560600989037.
  29. "Section 39, Northern Ireland Act 1998". Retrieved 26 May 2013.
  30. "Section 41, Northern Ireland Act 1998". Retrieved 26 May 2013.
  31. "Section 42, Northern Ireland Act 1998". Retrieved 26 May 2013.
  32. "Section 44, Northern Ireland Act 1998". Retrieved 26 May 2013.
  33. "Section 50, Northern Ireland Act 1998". Retrieved 26 May 2013.
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