Parliament of Northern Ireland

The Parliament of Northern Ireland was the home rule legislature created under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, which existed from June 7, 1921 to March 30, 1972, when it was suspended. It was subsequently abolished under the Constitution of Northern Ireland Act, 1973.

The Parliament of Northern Ireland was bicameral, consisting of a House of Commons with 52 seats, and an indirectly-elected Senate with 26 seats.


House of Commons

The House of Commons had 52 members, of which 48 were for territorial seats and four were for graduates of Queen's University, Belfast. The Government of Ireland Act prescribed that elections to the House of Commons be by the Single Transferable Vote (STV), though the Parliament was given power to alter the electoral system from three years after its first meeting. The STV system was the subject of criticism from grassroots Unionists but because the three year period ended during the Labour government of 1924, the Stormont government decided not to provoke the known egalitarian sympathies of many Labour backbenchers and held the second election on the same basis. The loss of eight Unionist seats in that election caused great acrimony and in 1929 the system was changed to first past the post for all territorial constituencies, though STV was retained for the university seats.

The boundary changes was not made by an impartial boundary commission but by the Unionist government, for which it was accused of gerrymandering. The charges that the Stormont seats (as opposed to local council wards) were gerrymandered against Nationalists is disputed by historians (since the number of Nationalists elected under the two systems barely changed), though it is agreed that losses under the change to single member seats boundaries were suffered by Independent Unionists, the Liberals and the Northern Ireland Labour Party. Population movements were so small that these boundaries were used almost everywhere until the Parliament was dissolved in 1972. In 1968 the government abolished the Queen's University constituency (long after university constituencies had been abolished at Westminster) and created four new constituencies in the outskirts of Belfast. This change helped the Unionists, as they held only two of the University seats but won all four of the newly created seats. However there had long been calls outside Unionism to abolish the graduate franchise (and other anomalies) and to have "one person one vote".


The Senate was very much a last minute addition to the Parliament, after the original plans for a single senate covering both the Stormont and Dublin Parliaments was deemed impractical.

Twenty-four senators were elected by the House of Commons using the Single Transferable Vote. The elections were carried out after each general election, with 12 members elected for two Parliaments each time. The other two seats were held ex officio by the Lord Mayors of Belfast and Londonderry. The Senate generally had the same party balance as the House of Commons, though abstaining parties and very small parties were not represented. Because of this, and its dependence on the House of Commons for election, it had virtually no impact.


Initially parliament met in Belfast City centre, before moving to its purpose-built parliament building in the Belfast suburb of Stormont in 1932, designed by Arnold Thornley. "Stormont" came to be a nickname referring both to the Parliament itself and to the Northern Ireland government.

The British monarch was initially represented as head of state by a Lord Lieutenant, although this was replaced by the office of Governor of Northern Ireland. As at Westminster, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland was the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons, invariably the Ulster Unionists. Initially the House of Commons was elected by proportional representation, by means of the Single Transferable Vote, but this was later replaced by 'first past the post' as in Westminster elections. The Senate was elected by members of the House of Commons.


In most of its activities the House of Commons deliberately used the same procedure as the Parliament of the United Kingdom at Westminster. Each Parliament opened with a King's (or Queen's) Speech, though only King George V in 1921 gave it in person. From 1922 the speech was delivered by the Governor of Northern Ireland. The Governor was the Crown's representative who formally summoned and prorogued Parliament. The Parliament emulated some of the more bizarre traditions, such as giving a First Reading to the Outlawries Bill immediately after the speech from the throne as a token gesture of defiance of Royal authority. The same sessional orders were then agreed relating to Members returned for two constituencies.

As at Westminster, Members referred to each other in debate as "the honourable Member for the (X) division". Bills, introduced either in the Senate or the House of Commons, had to pass through First Reading, Second Reading, Committee Stage, and Third Reading in both Houses to become law. With a very strict divorce law, the Parliament was often asked to deal with Private Bills promoted by divorcing couples. Because of the much smaller size of the House, only one Member was required to act as a Teller for each side during a division and they were counted among those voting in the division. The Parliament established virtually the same Parliamentary and Committee structure as Westminster.


Stormont was given power to legislate over almost all aspects of Northern Ireland life, with only a few matters excluded from its remit: succession to the Crown, making of peace or war, armed forces, honours, naturalisation, some central taxes and postal services were the most important (a full list is in section 4 of the Government of Ireland Act 1920). The Parliament did not try to infringe the terms of the Government of Ireland Act; on only one occasion did the United Kingdom government advise the King to withhold Royal Assent. This was the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) which abolished proportional representation in local government elections; the issue was referred to London and Royal Assent was eventually given. The output of legislation was high for a devolved Parliament, though some of the Acts were adaptations of recently passed United Kingdom Acts. Stormont was an innovator in much of its legislation. It was nominally prohibited by section 16 of the Schedule to the Irish Free State (Agreement) Act 1922 from making any law which directly or indirectly discriminated against a religion, although this provision had little effect.

Brief history

The 1921 general election was explicitly fought on the issue of partition, being in effect a referendum on approval of the concept of a Northern Ireland administration. Thereafter general election timing was up to the Prime Minister. Elections almost always took place at a time when the issue of partition had been raised in a new crisis. This generally guaranteed the loyalty of Protestant voters to the Unionist Party. Independent Unionist candidates and the Northern Ireland Labour Party were usually accused of being dupes of the Nationalists.

The 1925 general election was called by the Unionists in order to tie in with the expected report of the Boundary Commission required by the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922. The Boundary Commission was expected to recommend the transfer of many border parishes to the Irish Free State, and the Unionist election slogan was "Not an Inch!". The Unionists lost eight seats in Belfast and County Antrim, where the Boundary Commission issue had far less local resonance. Sinn Féin had fought in 1921 but by 1925 were suffering the effects of their split over the Treaty. Eamon de Valera's Sinn Féin fought as Republicans but won only two seats. The border was never changed.

A minor row erupted in 1925 when the elections for the Senate took place. Eleven Unionist and one Labour Senators were elected, despite there being a block of three comprised of two non-abstaining Nationalists and a dissident Unionist. The latter three had mailed their votes, but due to a public holiday and the practices of the post service, they arrived an hour after the election. Requests for a recount were denied. (It is however doubtful whether the three votes would have been sufficient to elect a Senator under the election system, since they would not have achieved a complete Single Transferable Vote quota alone and the Unionist votes were likely to transfer so heavily to each other that the Nationalist candidate would not reach quota throughout the rounds of counting.) From later in 1925 to 1927, the Nationalist Party members took their seats for the first time.

In 1929 the Unionists dumped the hated proportional representation system blamed for their bad performance in 1925. The new boundaries set the pattern for politics until Stormont was abolished; the Unionists never fell below 33 seats. The 1938 election was called when the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Neville Chamberlain was negotiating a settlement of outstanding disputes with Éire (as the Irish Free State had just become), whose new constitution laid claim to the province, and that of 1949 was called when the Free State declared itself a republic.

1965 saw a significant change in that the Nationalists accepted office as the Official Opposition. This was intended as a reward for the attempts made by Terence O'Neill to conciliate Catholic opinion and normalise relations with the Republic. However, the Unionists split over O'Neill's actions at the 1969 general election and Ian Paisley's Protestant Unionist Party began to win by-elections. The new nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, withdrew from Stormont in July 1971 over the refusal of an inquiry into riots in Derry.

Stormont was abolished just six weeks after Bloody Sunday when the Unionist Government refused to hand over responsibility for law and order to Westminster. In its 50-year history, only one piece of legislation was passed that originated from the Nationalists. It concerned wildlife. In October 1971, Gerard Newe, a Catholic UUP MP, had been appointed as a junior minister at Stormont, in a belated attempt to improve community relations. He was the first Catholic to serve in a Northern Ireland government. Northern Ireland and Mexico are alone, in the Western world, in having spent more than half the 20th century under one-party rule.

General elections


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