Northern Ireland Assembly

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The logo of the Northern Ireland Assembly is a six flowered linen or flax plant, chosen for the plant's historical economic importance to the region. The number of flowers is for the six counties of Northern Ireland while the colour blue reflects the decor of the Assembly Chamber.

The Northern Ireland Assembly is a home rule legislature established in Northern Ireland under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement but currently under suspension. The Assembly is a unicameral body consisting of 108 members elected under the Single Transferable Vote form of proportional representation. The Agreement is an accord aimed at bring an end to Northern Ireland's violent thirty year Troubles. The Assembly is based on the principle of power-sharing, in order to ensure that both communities in Northern Ireland, Unionist and nationalist, participate in governing the region. When not suspended it has power to legislate in a wide range of areas and to elect the Northern Ireland Executive (cabinet). It sits at Parliament Building at Stormont in Belfast.

The Assembly was first convened in 1998 but attempts to secure its operation on a permanent basis have been frustrated by disagreements between Unionists and Sinn Féin, the largest nationalist party, which is linked to the Provisional IRA. Unionists have refused to participate in the Good Friday Agreement's institutions alongside Sinn Fein until they are assured that the IRA will discontinue all of its activities, decommission its arms and disband. Because of this disagreement the Assembly has been suspended on a number of occasions; the current period of suspension began in October 2002.



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Parliament Building in Stormont, location of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It was built to house the earlier Parliament of Northern Ireland, abolished in 1972.

Attempts to restore devolution to Northern Ireland, on the basis of power-sharing, have been pursued since 1972. From 1921 to 1972 Northern Ireland was governed by the Parliament of Northern Ireland, an earlier devolved legislature. This body was dominated by Unionists who, because at all times they held a majority of seats, were able to legislate as they pleased and to permanently exclude nationalists from government. This Northern Ireland parliament was abolished by the United Kingdom Parliament at Westminister in 1972 when it proved unable to control the escalating civil strife associated with the beginning of the Troubles.

Shortly after this first parliament was abolished attempts began to restore devolution on a new basis that would see power shared between nationalists and Unionists. To this end a second, short-lived parliament called, like its modern successor, the Northern Ireland Assembly was established under the Sunningdale Agreement in 1973. However this body was brought down by opposition from hardline Unionists and republicans and was abolished in 1974.

The modern Northern Ireland Assembly was first elected on 25 June 1998 and first met on 1 July of that year but existed only in "shadow" form until the 2 December 1999 when full powers were devolved to the Assembly. Since then the Assembly has operated only intermittently and has been suspended on four occasions:

The most recent suspension occurred as Unionists walked out of the Executive after Sinn Fein's offices at Stormont had been raided by police investigating intelligence gathering on behalf of the IRA by members of their support staff. The assembly dissolved on 28 April, 2003 as it was scheduled to, but the elections due the following month were postponed by the UK government and were not held until November. Lord Alderdice has served as the only regular Speaker of the Assembly thus far, although he has retired to serve as part of the current Independent Monitoring Commission that supervises paramilitary cease-fires.


The Assembly's composition and powers are laid down in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Assembly's 108 members are 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 Westminster Parliament. The 1998 Act provides that, unless the Assembly is dissolved early, elections should occur once in every five years on the first Thursday in May. However the second election to the Assembly was delayed by the UK government until 23 November 2003. The Assembly is dissolved shortly before the holding of elections on a day chosen by the Secretary of State, the UK minister with responsibility for Northern Ireland. After the holding of elections 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 within six weeks of its first meeting or of those positions becoming vacant. Members of the Assembly are known as MLAs or "Members of the Legislative Assembly". The two elections held to the Assembly so far were the:

See also: Current composition of the Northern Ireland Assembly by party


The Northern Ireland has two primary mechanisms to guarantee power-sharing. The first is the manner in which ministers are appointed to the Northern Ireland Executive. These are not nominated by a simple majority vote. Rather all parties with a significant number of seats are entitled to at least one minister, and ministerial portfolios are divided among the parties in proportion to their strength in the Assembly. The second power-sharing mechanism is the requirement that 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". A measure is deemed to have received cross-community support only if it is endorsed by either:

  • Parallel Consent: A majority of all votes cast, including a majority of the votes cast by Unionists and a majority of votes cast by nationalists.
  • Weighted Majority: A 60% majority of all votes cast, including at least 40% of the votes cast by Unionists and 40% of the votes cast by nationalists.

The election of the First and Deputy First Ministers, the election of the Speaker and Deputy Speakers, 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 must occur by parallel consent but in all other cases either form of cross community support is acceptable. In addition to votes on these subjects any vote taken by the Assembly can be made dependent on cross-community support if at least thirty MLAs present the Speaker with a "petition of concern" before the vote is taken. This means, in effect, that, provided enough MLAs from a given community agree, each of the two communities represented in the Assembly can exercise a veto over its decisions.

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 power-sharing system thus depends on the honesty of its participants. The system has been criticised by some, in particular the cross-community Alliance Party, as entrenching sectarian divisions. Alliance favours a change that would involve an end to official designations of identity and the taking of important votes on the basis of an ordinary super-majority.

Powers and functions

The Assembly has both legislative powers and responsibility for electing the Northern Ireland Executive. The First and Deputy First Ministers are elected on a cross-community vote. However the remaining ministers are not elected but rather 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 enumerated 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. An incomplete list of "transferred", "reserved" and "excepted" matters is given below. While the Assembly is in suspension its legislative powers are exercised by the UK government which effectively has power to legislate by decree. Laws that would normally be within the competence of the Assembly are passed by the UK government in the form of Orders-in-Council rather than legislative acts.

Unlike laws enacted by the UK Parliament, Acts of the Northern Ireland Assembly are subject to judicial review. A law can be struck down if it is found to exceed the competences of the Assembly but also if it violates European Union law or the European Convention on Human Rights, or if it is found to discriminate against individuals on the grounds of political opinion or religious belief.

Although the British monarch is not formally a component of the Assembly (as is the case at Westminster), all bills passed by the Assembly must receive the Royal Assent in order to become law. This is not a mere formality; if he or she believes that a bill violates the constitutional limitations on the powers of the Assembly the Secretary of State can advise the monarch to veto the bill, and the monarch will abide by this advice. In almost all other circumstances, however, the monarch is bound by convention to sign a bill into law. Acts of the Northern Ireland Assembly begin with the enacting formula: "BE IT ENACTED by being passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly and assented to by Her Majesty as follows:".

Transferred matters

  • Education
  • Health
  • Agriculture
  • Enterprise, trade and investment
  • The environment
  • Regional development
  • Transport
  • Water
  • Culture, arts and leisure

Excepted matters

  • Royal succession
  • International relations
  • Defence and armed forces
  • Nationality, immigration and asylum
  • Taxes levied across the United Kingdom as a whole
  • Appointment of senior judges
  • All elections held in Northern Ireland
  • Currency
  • Conferring of honours

Reserved matters

  • Criminal law
  • Police
  • Postage
  • Navigation and civil aviation
  • International trade
  • Telecommunications
  • The foreshore and sea bed
  • Disqualification from Assembly membership
  • Consumer safety
  • Financial services and markets
  • Intellectual property
  • National minimum wage


The Assembly is chaired by the Speaker and three Deputy Speakers. In the Assembly the Speaker and ten other members constitute a quorum. The Assembly Commission is the body corporate of the Assembly. It ensures that the Assembly has the property, staff and services it needs to carry out its work. Legal proceedings taken for or against the Assembly are taken for or against the Commission on behalf of the Assembly.

When not suspended the Assembly has a number of statutory committees each of which is charged with scrutinising the activities of a particular ministerial department. It also has a number of permanent standing committees and temporary ad hoc committees. The chairs and deputy chairs of the committees are chosen by party nominating officers under a procedure similar to that used to appoint members of the Executive. 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 were the statutory and standing committees of the Assembly at the time of its suspension in 2002:

Departmental committees

  • Agriculture and Rural Development Committee
  • Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee
  • Education Committee
  • Employment and Learning Committee
  • Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee
  • Environment Committee
  • Finance and Personnel Committee
  • Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee
  • Regional Development Committee
  • Social Development Committee

Standing committees

  • Committee on Procedures
  • Business Committee
  • Committee of the Centre
  • Public Accounts Committee
  • Committee on Standards and Privileges
  • Audit Committee

See also

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