How the Northern Ireland administration is structured, what areas it legislates on, and links to its main departments.
The devolved institutions in Northern Ireland are constituted under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, with several institutional reforms having taken place since then. The Assembly term which ended in 2011 was the first since devolution in 1998 to run its full course without any suspension or collapse, emphasising the increasing political stability of recent years.
Northern Ireland ministers are chosen from the Northern Ireland Assembly in proportion to party strengths using the d’Hondt formula. The Executive is headed by a First Minister and a deputy First Minister, who have equal status and must act jointly.
Understanding what has been devolved
The Northern Ireland devolution settlement gives legislative control over certain matters (known as ‘transferred matters’) to the Assembly. In the main these are in the economic and social field. The Assembly may also in principle legislate in respect of ‘reserved’ category matters subject to various consents, but has not yet done so to any significant degree.
Matters of national importance which, in the normal course of events it is expected will remain the responsibility of HM government and Westminster, are known as ‘excepted matters,’ and the NI Assembly does not have competence to legislate on these. Schedule 2 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 sets out these areas.
Many UK-wide issues such as broadcasting and genetic research are known as ‘reserved matters’. This category originally included policing and criminal justice but those matters were devolved and therefore moved into the transferred field on 12 April 2010. Schedule 3 of the Northern Ireland Act sets out which matters fall into the ‘reserved’ category.
Anything that isn’t explicitly reserved or excepted in Schedules 2 or 3 is deemed to be devolved and the Assembly has full legislative competence. It does not require consent from Westminster or HM government to legislate.
Issues on which the Northern Ireland Assembly has full legislative powers:
- health and social services
- employment and skills
- social security
- pensions and child support
- economic development
- local government
- environmental issues, including planning
- culture and sport
- the Northern Ireland Civil Service
- equal opportunities
- justice and policing
HM government retains responsibility for matters of national importance, including:
- the constitution
- Royal succession
- international relations
- defence and armed forces
- nationality, immigration and asylum
- national security
- nuclear energy
- UK-wide taxation
- conferring of honours
- international treaties
These are issues where legislative authority generally rests with Westminster, but where the Northern Ireland Assembly can legislate with the consent of the Secretary of State. These include:
- firearms and explosives
- financial services and pensions regulation
- import and export controls
- navigation and civil aviation
- international trade and financial markets
- telecommunications and postage
- the foreshore and seabed
- disqualification from Assembly membership
- consumer safety
- intellectual property
The Agreement and the Devolved Institutions
The Agreement (pdf) reached on Good Friday 1998, often referred to as the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement, continues to underpin the government’s policy in Northern Ireland, and was the culmination of efforts over many years to move Northern Ireland out of the ‘Troubles’ period and to restore devolved government, which had been suspended with the prorogation of the old Northern Ireland Parliament in 1972.
The Agreement and the subsequent Northern Ireland Act 1998 (as amended a number of times since 1998, particularly following the 2006 St Andrews Agreement) continue to form the basis of the constitutional structure in Northern Ireland.
The negotiations which led up to the Agreement had been divided into 3 ‘strands’:
- strand 1 - dealing with internal arrangements of Northern Ireland
- strand 2 - dealing with relationships within the island of Ireland (North-South)
- strand 3 - dealing with relationships between HM government and Irish government (East-West)
The Northern Ireland Assembly is composed of 108 members elected by single transferable vote and has full legislative powers on most economic and social matters. The Assembly sits at Parliament Buildings, Stormont Estate, in Belfast.
Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) meet to debate issues and introduce laws to support the people of Northern Ireland. Each MLA represents her or his constituency, and there are 6 MLAs for each constituency - the constituencies themselves are the same as those used to elect MPs to the House of Commons.
On important or controversial matters, the Assembly votes by the special threshold of ‘cross-community support, which is defined (in the Agreement and in the 1998 Act) as either:
- parallel consent – an overall majority plus a majority of unionists and a majority of nationalists (sometimes called ‘50:50:50’); or
- weighted majority – an overall majority of 60% plus at least 40% of the designated Nationalists voting and 40% of the designated Unionists voting.
The Northern Ireland Executive is structured to ensure power-sharing and inclusivity. It is chaired by a First Minister and deputy First Minister (who hold office jointly and are required to act jointly). It is made up of 10 other ministers appointed by the d’Hondt process in proportion to the parties’ strength in the Assembly. Each minister heads up their own Northern Ireland department with responsibility for specific areas of policy and delivery. The Justice Minister is also a member of the Executive, but is elected by the Assembly following a cross-community vote rather than by d’Hondt.
The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is a department in itself, which is responsible for such issues as equality, poverty and good community relations. The other departments are:
- agriculture and rural development – including fisheries
- culture, arts and leisure
- employment and learning – including further and higher education
- enterprise, trade and investment
- environment – including local government
- finance and personnel
- health and social services
- regional development – including transport
- social development – including social security and benefits
- justice - including policing and justice functions
You can read the detailed guide on the devolution settlement and Devolution Act for Scotland.
You can read the detailed guide on the devolution settlement and Devolution Act for Wales.