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 a unicameral, democratically elected body comprising 90 members known as Members of the Legislative Assembly (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's standing orders allow for certain contentious motions to require a cross-community vote; in addition to requiring the support of an overall majority of members, such votes must also be supported by a majority within both blocs in order to pass.
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 to end Northern Ireland's violent 30-year Troubles. The first Assembly election was held in June 1998.
Disagreements between the main unionist and nationalist parties have stalled the formation of an Executive and the commencement of the Assembly on several occasions, forcing the Northern Ireland Office of the UK Government to suspend the institutions. The longest suspension lasted for the entirety of the Assembly's second term, from 14 October 2002 until 7 May 2007, during which time the Assembly's powers reverted to the Northern Ireland Office. Negotiations during this period of direct rule resulted in the St Andrews Agreement in November 2006, and following a third election in March 2007, full power was restored to the devolved institutions on 8 May 2007. This third Assembly was the first to complete a full term, and saw powers in relation to policing and justice transferred to its second Executive on 12 April 2010.
A breakdown of trust brought down the Assembly and Executive on 26 January 2017, and a fresh election was held on 2 March. Negotiations mediated by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland missed the three-week deadline provided in law for the formation of an Executive. The passing of an extended legal deadline of 29 June left decisions on funding allocations in the hands of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and a budget for the ongoing 2017–18 financial year began its passage through the UK Parliament on 13 November.
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From 7 June 1921 until 30 March 1972, the devolved legislature for Northern Ireland was the Parliament of Northern Ireland, which always had an Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) majority and always elected a UUP government. 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.
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 had 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.
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. This brought about changes to nominations to First and Deputy First Minister: these are now chosen by larger parties only, while other positions are voted in by sitting MLAs (under the St Andrew's Agreement). 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 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 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 parties of the largest and second largest Assembly 'block' (understood to mean 'Unionist', 'Nationalist' and 'Other'). The Minister of Justice is appointed by cross-community agreement. The seven other ministerial positions are distributed among willing parties roughly proportionate to their share of seats in the Assembly by the D'Hondt method, with ministers chosen by the nominating officers of each party.
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:
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 Assembly has three primary mechanisms to ensure effective power-sharing:
The Assembly's composition is laid down in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It initially had 108 members (MLAs) elected from 18 six-member constituencies on the basis of universal adult suffrage. Under the Assembly Members (Reduction of Numbers) Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 the number of MLAs per constituency was reduced from 6 to 5, leaving a total of 90 seats. This took effect at the March 2017 election.
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. The changes will result in a decrease of the number of MLAs from 90 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. There have been six elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly since 1998.
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. Alliance 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.
Which parties can appoint ministers to the Northern Ireland Executive is determined by a combination of mandatory coalition, the D'Hondt method and cross-community support, depending on the role, as explained above. Coalitions of between three and five parties have governed over the Assembly's history. The Executive of the Sixth Assembly has yet to be formed.
|deputy First Minister||Vacant||Vacant|
|Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs||Vacant||Vacant|
|Also attending Executive meetings|
|Junior Minister (assisting the First Minister)||Vacant||Vacant|
|Junior Minister (assisting the deputy First Minister)||Vacant||Vacant|
Unlike the United Kingdom Parliament and the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament), the Assembly had no provision for an official opposition to hold governing parties to account until legislation was passed in 2016. A party may now form or join an Assembly Opposition, granting it additional speaking, scrutiny and funding rights, if it was entitled to Ministerial roles under the D'Hondt method and declined them, or if it wins 8% or more of the seats. This opportunity was qualified for and taken by the UUP and SDLP following the 2016 election. Even within the Executive, however, the parties (which have collectively held large majorities in the Assembly) have frequently voted against each other due to political and/or policy differences.
Alongside independents, a total of 15 parties have held seats in the Assembly since 1998:
The course of the Assembly saw a marked shift in party allegiance among voters. At the 2003 election, the DUP and Sinn Féin displaced the more moderate UUP and SDLP as the largest parties in the unionist and nationalist blocks. The parties only agreed to share power after four years of negotiations and a new election.
The DUP, Sinn Féin, SDLP and UUP have remained the largest parties in the Assembly and so far the only ones entitled to ministerial roles in the Executive under the D'Hondt method. However, there has been growing support for parties designated "Other". The centrist Alliance party secured the roles of Speaker from 1998 to 2007 and Minister of Justice from 2010 to 2016 thanks to cross-community support, and has seen an increase in its seat wins from 6 to 8. While the NI Women's Coalition disbanded in 2003, two leftist parties, the Green Party in Northern Ireland and People Before Profit Alliance, won their first seats, in 2007 and 2016, respectively.
A rapidly shifting landscape of smaller unionist parties has also been a feature of the Assembly. In 1999 the UK Unionist Party lost four of its five MLAs, disagreeing over a protest against Sinn Féin. The four formed the NI Unionist Party, which again suffered a split and won no seats in the 2003 election. That election also saw the electoral demise of a loose trio of independently-elected unionists who had united as the United Unionist Coalition. Minor unionist parties flourished again after the 2011 election, which saw the disappearance of the PUP from the Assembly and the election of the TUV, a splinter group from the DUP opposed to the St Andrews Agreement. In 2012, a suspended UUP member became UKIP's first MLA, and in 2013 two UUP MLAs resigned to form the progressive NI21, which later split. Of these only the TUV survived the 2016 and 2017 elections.
Disagreements within the Executive precipitated the resignation of the UUP in 2015, and following the 2016 election they and the SDLP formed the first Assembly Opposition. The row also saw Alliance relinquish its Justice role, joining the Greens, PBPA and TUV in unofficial opposition. Independent unionist Claire Sugden gained the cross-community support needed to take over the Ministry of Justice.
An Executive has yet[update] to be formed following the 2017 election, which saw the unionist block lose its Assembly majority for the first time. The usual four largest parties have won enough seats to win ministerial roles under D'Hondt (the DUP three, Sinn Féin two and the SDLP and UUP one each provided neither of them choose to enter opposition). With the reduction in the number of Assembly seats, the 8% threshold now amounts to eight rather than nine seats, qualifying Alliance to enter official opposition if they choose. The Greens have retained their two seats and the TUV and Claire Sugden their single seats, while People Before Profit now hold only one seat.
The table below details changes in members' allegiances and parties' seat possessions.
|Historical composition of the Northern Ireland Assembly|
|Speaker||Ind. N||Ind. O||Ind. U||UUP (U)||SDLP (N)||DUP (U)||SF (N)||Alli. (O)||PUP (U)||Gre. (O)||UKIP (U)||TUV (U)||PBPA (O)||NI21 (U)||UUC (U)||UKUP (U)||NIUP (U)||NIWC (O)||Vacant|
|1st Assembly||1998 Jun 25||election||108|
|1998 Jul 1||commencement||108||1||0||0||3||28 ●||24 ●||20 ●||18 ●||5||2||0||5||2||0|
|1998 Sep 21||party formation||108||1||0||0||0||28 ●||24 ●||20 ●||18 ●||5||2||0||3||5||2||0|
|1999 Jan 4||resignation from party||108||1||0||0||4||28 ●||24 ●||20 ●||18 ●||5||2||0||3||1||2||0|
|1999 Mar 24||party formation||108||1||0||0||0||28 ●||24 ●||20 ●||18 ●||5||2||0||3||1||4||2||0|
|1999 Dec 1||expulsion from party||108||1||0||0||1||28 ●||24 ●||20 ●||18 ●||5||2||0||3||1||3||2||0|
|2001 Nov 9||expulsion from party||108||1||0||0||2||27 ●||24 ●||20 ●||18 ●||5||2||0||3||1||3||2||0|
|2002 Apr 1||accession to party||108||1||0||0||1||27 ●||24 ●||21 ●||18 ●||5||2||0||3||1||3||2||0|
|2002 Apr 30||accession to party||108||1||0||0||0||27 ●||24 ●||22 ●||18 ●||5||2||0||3||1||3||2||0|
|2002 Nov 11||resignation from party||108||1||0||0||1||27 ●||24 ●||21 ●||18 ●||5||2||0||3||1||3||2||0|
|2003 Apr 1||resignation from party||108||1||1||0||1||27 ●||23 ●||21 ●||18 ●||5||2||0||3||1||3||2||0|
|2003 Oct 18||resignation from party||108||1||1||0||2||27 ●||23 ●||20 ●||18 ●||5||2||0||3||1||3||2||0|
|2nd Assembly||2003 Nov 26||election||108|
|2003 Dec 18||resignation from party||108||0||0||0||4||24||18||30||24||6||1||0||0||1||0||0||0|
|2004 Jan 5||accession to party||108||0||0||0||1||24||18||33||24||6||1||0||0||1||0||0||0|
|2005 Jul 4||suspension from party||108||0||0||0||2||24||18||32||24||6||1||0||0||1||0||0||0|
|2006 Apr 10||speaker appointment||108||1||0||0||2||24||18||32||24||5||1||0||0||1||0||0||0|
|2006 Sep 25||death||108||1||0||0||2||24||18||32||23||5||1||0||0||1||0||0||1|
|2007 Jan 15||resignation from party||108||1||0||1||2||24||18||32||22||5||1||0||0||1||0||0||1|
|2007 Feb 2||resignation from party||108||1||1||1||2||24||18||32||21||5||1||0||0||1||0||0||1|
|3rd Assembly||2007 Mar 7||election||108|
|2007 May 8||commencement||108||1||0||1||0||18 ●||16 ●||35 ●||28 ●||7||1||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|2007 Nov 29||resignation from party||108||1||1||1||0||18 ●||16 ●||35 ●||27 ●||7||1||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|2010 Mar 31||resignation from party||108||1||1||1||1||17 ●||16 ●||35 ●||27 ●||7||1||1||0||0||0|
|2010 Apr 12||accession to executive||108||1||1||1||1||17 ●||16 ●||35 ●||27 ●||7 ●||1||1||0||0||0|
|2010 Jun 3||resignation from party||108||1||1||1||2||17 ●||16 ●||35 ●||27 ●||7 ●||0||1||0||0||0|
|2011 Jan 3||resignation from party||108||1||1||1||3||16 ●||16 ●||35 ●||27 ●||7 ●||0||1||0||0||0|
|4th Assembly||2011 May 5||election||108|
|2011 May 12||commencement||108||1||0||0||1||16 ●||14 ●||37 ●||29 ●||8 ●||0||1||0||1||0||0||0|
|2012 Jan 27||suspension from party||108||1||0||0||2||15 ●||14 ●||37 ●||29 ●||8 ●||0||1||0||1||0||0||0|
|2012 Oct 4||accession to party||108||1||0||0||1||15 ●||14 ●||37 ●||29 ●||8 ●||0||1||1||1||0||0|
|2013 Feb 14||resignation from party||108||1||0||0||2||14 ●||14 ●||37 ●||29 ●||8 ●||0||1||1||1||0||0|
|2013 Feb 15||resignation from party||108||1||0||0||3||13 ●||14 ●||37 ●||29 ●||8 ●||0||1||1||1||0||0|
|2013 Jun 6||party formation||108||1||0||0||1||13 ●||14 ●||37 ●||29 ●||8 ●||0||1||1||1||0||2||0|
|2014 Apr 18||independent death||108||1||0||0||0||13 ●||14 ●||37 ●||29 ●||8 ●||0||1||1||1||0||2||1|
|2014 May 6||independent co-option||108||1||0||0||1||13 ●||14 ●||37 ●||29 ●||8 ●||0||1||1||1||0||2||0|
|2014 Jul 3||resignation from party||108||1||0||0||2||13 ●||14 ●||37 ●||29 ●||8 ●||0||1||1||1||0||1||0|
|2014 Oct 13||retirement from speaker & seat||108||0||0||0||2||13 ●||14 ●||37 ●||29 ●||8 ●||0||1||1||1||0||1||1|
|2014 Oct 20||co-option in party||108||0||0||0||2||13 ●||14 ●||38 ●||29 ●||8 ●||0||1||1||1||0||1||0|
|2015 Jan 12||speaker appointment||108||1||0||0||2||13 ●||14 ●||38 ●||28 ●||8 ●||0||1||1||1||0||1||0|
|2015 Sep 1||resignation from executive||108||1||0||0||2||13||14 ●||38 ●||28 ●||8 ●||0||1||1||1||0||1||0|
|5th Assembly||2016 May 5||election||108|
|2016 May 12||commencement||108||1||0||0||1 ●||16 ʘ||12 ʘ||37 ●||28 ●||8||0||2||0||1||2||0|
|2016 Dec 18||suspension from party||108||1||0||0||1,1 ●||16 ʘ||12 ʘ||36 ●||28 ●||8||0||2||0||1||2||0|
|6th Assembly||2017 Mar 2||election||90|
|● = Northern Ireland Executive; ʘ = Assembly Opposition.|
|Parties listed exclude those which have never held seats in the body; events exclude simple co-options within parties.
Full lists of co-options can be viewed on the "Members of the nth NI Assembly" pages (links in first column).
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.
The possibility of by-elections or co-options was established by the Northern Ireland Act 1998. 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.
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.
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 9 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:
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.