Northern Ireland Assembly
|Northern Ireland Assembly |
Norlin Airlan Assemblie
Tionól Thuaisceart Éireann
|Northern Ireland Assembly|
|North/South Ministerial Council|
British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference
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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. Under the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, the number of MLAs will be reduced from 108 to 96 following the next Assembly election. 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 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 four 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
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.
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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.
In addition to opposition parties, the following members have either been elected to the Assembly as independent candidates (as highlighted) or have left their parties to become independent:
- Denis Watson (1998–2000)
- Fraser Agnew (1998–2003)
- Boyd Douglas (1998–2003)
- Roger Hutchinson (1999–2000, from NIUP; 2003, from DUP)
- Peter Weir (2001–2002, from UUP)
- Pauline Armitage (2001–2003, from UUP)
- Gardiner Kane (2002–2003, from DUP)
- Norah Beare (2003–2004, from UUP)
- Jeffrey Donaldson (2003–2004, from UUP)
- Arlene Foster (2003–2004, from UUP)
- Kieran Deeny (2003–2011)
- Paul Berry (2006–2007, from DUP)
- Davy Hyland (2006–2007, from Sinn Féin)
- Geraldine Dougan (2007, from Sinn Féin)
- Kathy Stanton (2007, from Sinn Féin)
- Gerry McHugh (2007–2011, from Sinn Féin)
- Alan McFarland (2010–2011, from UUP)
- Dawn Purvis (2010–2011, from PUP)
- David McClarty (2011–2014, elected independent, died 18 April 2014)
- Basil McCrea (2013, from UUP, later joined NI21)
- Claire Sugden (2014–, nominated to replace David McClarty 29 April 2014) 
- John McCallister (2014-, former UUP and later NI21 MLA until 2 July 2014)
Denis Watson, Fraser Agnew and Boyd Douglas formed the United Unionist Coalition group to maximise their influence in the Assembly e.g. to seek and gain committee positions. DUP MLAs are required to resign their position if they breach party policy and therefore cannot become independent or join other parties; resignation letters can be presented to the Speaker without consultation.
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 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||Peter Robinson||DUP|
|Deputy First Minister||Martin McGuinness||Sinn Féin|
|Agriculture and Rural Development||Michelle O'Neill||Sinn Féin|
|Culture, Arts & Leisure||Carál Ní Chuilín||Sinn Féin|
|Education||John O'Dowd||Sinn Féin|
|Employment and Learning||Stephen Farry||Alliance|
|Enterprise, Trade and Investment||Jonathan Bell||DUP|
|Environment||Mark H. Durkan||SDLP|
|Finance & Personnel||Arlene Foster||DUP|
|Health, Social Services & Public Safety||Simon Hamilton||DUP|
|Regional Development||Danny Kennedy||UUP|
|Social Development||Mervyn Storey||DUP|
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 First Minister)||Michelle McIlveen||DUP|
|Junior Minister (assisting deputy First Minister)||Jennifer McCann||Sinn Féin|
- 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
- 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.
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.
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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 2014 by William Hay, but has been vacant since 13 October 2014. 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
Voting on the Commission is in proportion to party strengths
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 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
- Justice Committee
- Regional Development Committee
- Social Development Committee
- Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister
- 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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30.  – Northern Ireland assembly surrenders Antarctic powers
- 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 – PDF file from the Assembly website.
- Northern Ireland Assembly awards outsourcing contract – Article from Bray Leino BroadSkill website.