Northern Ireland Assembly

What is the Northern Ireland Assembly?

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

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

The Assembly has power to legislate in a wide range of areas that are not explicitly reserved to Westminster, and to appoint the Northern Ireland Executive. The Assembly sits at the Parliament Buildings at Stormont in Belfast.


The Northern Ireland Assembly is based at Stormont

History of the Northern Ireland Assembly

Creation and Powers
The Assembly met for the first time on July 1st 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 D’Hondt procedure provides each party with substantial representation in the Assembly with 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 30th 1999, which transferred the bulk of the Northern Ireland Office’s functions to the Assembly on December 2nd 2000.

Devolution gave the Assembly and Executive Committee full legislative and executive authority in Northern Ireland 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.

Subsequently, powers relating to responsibility for policing and justice were transferred to the Assembly in April 2010.

Suspension 2002 to 2007
The Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended from midnight on October 14th 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 26th 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.

Restoration of Government – 2007 to  2017
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 Northern Ireland Assembly elections, both Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness retained their positions as First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

Suspension 2017 to 2020 
A decade after its first prolonged suspension, the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended again from January 2017 to January 2020.

This suspension occurred in the aftermath of the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, and the associated resignation of the then Deputy First Minister, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness.  Sinn Fein subsequently withdrew from the Assembly and without the formation of a new Executive, decisions over Northern Ireland affairs reverted to Westminster.

During this time Westminster amended legislation that liberalised abortion and legalised same sex marriage in Northern Ireland.

Restoration of the Assembly – 2020
After eventual success in talks between the parties, the Assembly resumed on 11th January 2020.

Northern Ireland Protocol Suspension – 2022
In early 2022, Northern Ireland once again was without a power sharing executive, after the DUP collapsed the instituations as part of its protest against the Northern Ireland protocol which formed part of the UK government’s Brexit deal with the EU.


Although the power-sharing requirements for devolved government under the Good Friday Agreement were considered 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 in Northern Ireland Assembly, making the possibilities of a breakdown in government more likely and the resumption of devolved government considerably harder.  This was seen between 2002 and 2007 as the DUP formally refused even to hold talks with Sinn Fein, and after 2017 when Sinn Fein resigned from the government.

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.


The 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly election left the parties with the following seats:

Sinn Féin – 27
Democratic Unionist Party – 25
Alliance Party of Northern Ireland – 17
Ulster Unionist Party  – 9
Social Democratic and Labour Party – 8
People before profit – 1
TUV – 1
Independents – 2


“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’.