Northern Ireland Assembly

What is the Northern Ireland Assembly?

The Belfast Agreement (also known as the Good Friday Agreement) of April 10 1998 was approved by the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum on 22 May 1998. Among its various provisions taking forward the peace process, the Agreement included proposals for devolved government.

The Northern Ireland Assembly was established by the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998, and elections were held to elect 108 members under the Proportional Representation Single Transferable Vote system.

Background

The Assembly met for the first time on July 1 1998, and Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon were elected as First Minister and Deputy First Minister respectively. Along with these positions, the Northern Ireland Executive Committee includes two Junior ministers and 11 departmental Ministers, appointed under the D'Hondt procedure.

The procedure provides each party with substantial representation in the Assembly a proportionate number of Ministers. This creates a 'power-sharing' Executive, unlike the adversarial models used elsewhere in the UK. A Devolution Order was approved at Westminster on November 30 1999, which transferred the bulk of the Northern Ireland Office's functions to the Assembly on December 2 2000.

Devolution gave the Assembly and Executive Committee full legislative and executive authority over Agriculture, Economic Development, Education, the Environment, Health and Social Services.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland retained responsibility for Policing, Security, Prisons, Criminal Justice, International Relations, Taxation, National Insurance, Regulation of Financial Services, Telecommunications and Broadcasting, in addition to representing the interests of the province in the Cabinet at Westminster.

Powers relating to responsibility for policing and justice were transferred to the Assembly in April 2010.

The Assembly was suspended from midnight on October 14 2002, following allegations about an IRA spy-ring within Stormont that had passed information about prominent politicians to the paramilitaries. The Ulster Unionist Party threatened to pull out of power-sharing altogether if Sinn Fein was not expelled from the administration.

Before this time, the Assembly had been suspended on three other occasions because the unionist parties refused to participate without additional reassurances about the republicans' renunciation of violence.

Elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly were held on November 26 2003, when the Ulster Unionists were surpassed by the anti-Good Friday Agreement DUP as the largest unionist party, and the SDLP surpassed by Sinn Fein as the largest nationalist party.

The St Andrews Agreement in 2006 paved the way for a transitional assembly, as the precursor for the return of devolved government in Northern Ireland.

Elections were held on March 7th, returning the DUP and Sinn Fein as the two largest parties. Party leaders Mr Paisley and Mr Adams failed to reach an agreement on power-sharing in time for the March 26th deadline set out in the St Andrew's Agreement.

However, a power-sharing agreement was decided on March 26th which would see Mr Paisley serve as first minister with the Sinn Fein's Mr McGuinness as deputy first minister. The agreement, hailed as historic by politicians was approved following emergency legislation in the House of Commons.

Devolved government was restored to the Assembly on May 8th 2007 and Mr Paisley and Mr McGuinness were sworn in as ministers and worked well together until Mr Paisley stepped down as DUP leader and First Minister in 2008.  He was replaced in both those positions by Peter Robinson.

Following the 2011 NI Assembly elections, both Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness retained their positions as First Minister and Deputy First Minister. The two Junior ministers are Jonathan Bell MLA and Jennifer McCann MLA.

Controversies

Although the power-sharing requirements for devolved government under the Good Friday Agreement were probably essential to involve the mainstream parties representing both communities, they handed a veto on progress to those parties.

The replacement of the more moderate UUP and SDLP by the DUP and Sinn Fein as the largest parties polarised the situation further, making a resumption of devolved government considerably harder, as the DUP formally refused even to hold talks with Sinn Fein.

There was further controversy in January 2010 when Iris Robinson, wife of the First Minister Peter Robinson, was implicated in a financial scandal involving her 19 year-old lover. Peter Robinson stepped down temporarily in order to clear his name, returning in February to continue in his role as First Minister.

Despite the scandal, both Peter Robinson and the DUP won resounding victories in the subsequent 2011 Assembly elections.

Statistics

The 2011 Northern Ireland Assembly election left the parties with the following seats:

Democratic Unionist Party - 38
Sinn Féin - 29
Ulster Unionist Party  - 16
Social Democratic and Labour Party - 14
Alliance Party of Northern Ireland - 8
Traditional Unionist Voice - 1
Green Party - 1
Independent -1

Of the 108 MLAs elected in 2011, 25 were new and 20 were women (compared with 18 in 2007).
Turnout  in the election was 54.7% (compared with 62.3% in 2007).
A total of 218 candidates contested the election (compared with 257 in 2007).

In terms of seats, the 2011 election resulted in swings in favour of the DUP, Alliance and Sinn Féin.

Source: NI Assembly - 2012
 

Quotes

"It is acknowledged that the exchange of ideas, and opinions on policies may be robust but this should be kept in context and not extend to individuals being subjected to unreasonable and excessive personal attack. Members should keep in mind that rude and offensive behaviour may lower the public's regard for, and confidence in, Members and the Assembly itself. Members should therefore show respect and consideration for others at all times."

From the 'Code of Conduct for Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly'.