History of the Assembly

CONTENTS

 

Origins of the Northern Ireland Assembly
(The Belfast Agreement also known as the "Good Friday" Agreement)

The Northern Ireland Assembly

How the Northern Ireland Assembly operates

The Speaker

The Assembly Commission and Business Committee

The Pre Devolution or "Shadow" Period

The Assembly after Devolution

Suspension and Restoration Of The Northern Ireland Assembly

Origins of the Northern Ireland Assembly
(The Belfast Agreement, also known as the "Good Friday" Agreement)

 

The Northern Ireland Assembly was established as a result of the Belfast Agreement of 10 April 1998. The Agreement was the outcome of a long process of talks between the Northern Ireland political parties and the British and Irish Governments.

The Agreement was endorsed through a referendum held on 22 May 1998 and subsequently given legal force through the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It led to the creation of a series of interrelated bodies, in particular the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has full legislative and executive authority for all matters that are the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Government Departments and are known as transferred matters. Excepted matters remain the responsibility of the Westminster Parliament. Reserved matters are also dealt with by Westminster unless it is decided by the Secretary of State that some of these should be devolved to the Assembly. Excepted and reserved matters are defined in the Schedules to the NI Act.

The Belfast Agreement also led to the establishment of:

  • North/South Ministerial Council to bring together those with executive responsibilities in Northern Ireland and the Irish Governments to develop consultation, co-operation and action within the island of Ireland. All Council decisions must be agreed by the two sides.
  • British-Irish Council to exchange information, discuss, consult and use best endeavours to reach agreement on co-operation on matters of mutual interest within the competence of the relevant Administrations. Membership comprises representatives of the British and Irish Governments, devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales together with representatives of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.
  • A consultative Civic Forum, comprising representatives of business, trades unions and other civic sectors in Northern Ireland to act as a consultative mechanism on social, economic and cultural issues.

The First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting together nominate Ministers to attend the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council and to report to the Assembly following each meeting of these bodies. They also ensure that the Executive is represented at meetings of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister, acting together, also make arrangements for the operation of the Civic Forum. These arrangements require Assembly approval.

 

The Northern Ireland Assembly

The Assembly was elected on 25 June 1998 under the terms of the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998. It was called the New Northern Ireland Assembly to distinguish it from the Northern Ireland Assembly for which legislative provision remained at that time under the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973.

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 stated that the Assembly would be known as the "New Northern Ireland Assembly" in the pre-devolution or "shadow" period and that at the date of devolution it would be called the "Northern Ireland Assembly".

The New Northern Ireland Assembly met for the first time on 1 July 1998 in Castle Buildings on the Stormont Estate. The then Secretary of State the Rt Hon Dr Marjorie Mowlam MP appointed Lord Alderdice as Initial Presiding Officer for the first sitting of the Assembly with the intention that the Assembly would then elect a Presiding Officer.

In the event, no election for a Presiding Officer was held and on the date of devolution, as provided for in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, Lord Alderdice, as the incumbent, was confirmed in office. The Standing Orders of the Assembly, which took effect from the date of devolution, provided for the Presiding Officer to be addressed as "Speaker".

At the first meeting of the Assembly, the Rt Hon David Trimble MP was elected as First Minister (Designate) and Mr Seamus Mallon MP as Deputy First Minister (Designate).

The refurbishment of the Assembly Chamber in Parliament Buildings was completed during the summer months, and since the second sitting on 14 September 1998 the Assembly has met in that Chamber.

How The Northern Ireland Assembly Operates

The Northern Ireland Assembly consists of 108 elected Members - six from each of the 18 Westminster constituencies. Its role is primarily to scrutinise and make decisions on the issues dealt with by Government Departments and to consider and make legislation.

A First Minister and a Deputy First Minister are elected to lead the Executive Committee of Ministers. They must stand for election jointly and to be elected they must have cross-community support by the parallel consent formula, which means that a majority of both the Members who have designated themselves Nationalists and those who have designated themselves Unionists and a majority of the whole Assembly, must vote in favour.

The First Minister and Deputy First Minister head the Executive Committee of Ministers and acting jointly, determine the total number of Ministers in the Executive.

The parties elected to the Assembly choose Ministerial portfolios and select Ministers in proportion to their party strength. Each party has a designated nominating officer and the d'Hondt procedure is used for the appointment of Ministers.

Statutory Departmental Committees are also established to advise and assist each Minister in the formulation of policy for his/her Department and to scrutinise the work of that Department. Committee Chairpersons and Deputy Chairpersons are elected using the d'Hondt procedure. Committee membership is filled based on party strengths in accordance with Standing Order 47. There is also a number Standing and Ad Hoc Committees. For details of committee membership and work, please follow this link.

 

The Speaker

The Office of the Presiding Officer of the Assembly, known as "the Speaker", is held by Mr William Hay MLA. The Speaker presides over the proceedings of the Assembly, is Chairperson of the Business Committee and Chairperson of the Assembly Commission.

The Speaker has a scrutiny role in relation to the competence of legislation prior to the First and Final Stages of a Bill. He selects amendments to Bills and Motions for debate and selects questions for oral answer. Following the first reading of a Bill the Speaker sends a copy to the Human Rights Commission and on the completion of all the Stages of a Bill he sends it to the Secretary of State requesting Royal Assent.

The Speaker receives VIP visitors from the British Isles and overseas to Parliament Buildings, including Heads of State, Ambassadors and senior politicians. The Speaker also hosts and attends a range of events designed to promote an understanding of the Assembly as an institution and to develop links with the wider Northern Ireland community as well as within the UK and internationally.

Standing Orders require the Assembly to elect three Deputy Speakers, currently Mr John Dallat MLA, Mr David McClarty MLA and Mr Francie Molloy MLA.

The Assembly Commission and the Business Committee

The Assembly Commission, which is the corporate body of the Assembly, is responsible for providing the Assembly with "property, staff and services". It consists of five members of the Assembly and is chaired by the Speaker.

The Business Committee consists of the Whips from the various political parties. It makes arrangements for the business of the Assembly.

Details of the membership and workings of these bodies can be found by following the above links.

The Pre Devolution or "Shadow" period

In the early months of the Shadow Assembly, some further elements were added to its basic structure by means of amendments to Standing Orders.

One such change created the Committee of the Centre (now known as the Committee for the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister) to examine and report on various functions carried out in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

During the six months from September 1998 much of the necessary preparatory work for devolution was done. This included the establishment of a Committee to draw up Standing Orders for the procedures to govern operations of the Assembly and also the formation of a Shadow Assembly Commission, which became the Assembly Commission after devolution.

Agreement was reached on the creation of new departmental structures. These were approved by the Assembly on 18 January 1999 and form the basis of the present Northern Ireland Departments. At the same time, the Assembly approved various areas for North/South co-operation.

On 16 February 1999 the Assembly approved the numbers and titles of the new Departments and also provided for the composition and operation of the Civic Forum.

Details of all these arrangements can be found in a report of 15 February 1999 from the First Minister (Designate) and the Deputy First Minister (Designate) (NNIA7).

With the approval of Standing Orders on 9 March 1999 this preparatory work was completed. The Shadow Assembly did not meet again in plenary session until 15 July 1999.

Despite the fact that agreement had not been reached on the formation of an Executive, the Assembly met on 15 July 1999 to activate the d'Hondt procedure for the nomination of Ministers. However, only Sinn Fein and the SDLP made nominations. Since, under Additional Initial Standing Orders, Ministers could only hold office if their nominations included three designated Unionists and three designated Nationalists the conditions for their appointment had not been met and the Assembly was adjourned.

US Senator George Mitchell presided over a review of the political process which began on 6 September and concluded on 19 November 1999.

The Assembly met on 29 November 1999. Ten Ministers (click here to view the current list of Ministers), three each from the UUP and the SDLP and two each from the DUP and Sinn Fein, were nominated at this meeting as well as the Chairpersons and Deputy Chairpersons for the 10 Statutory Departmental Committees - details of their membership and work to the end of the 2007 - 2011 mandate (Work during the 2011 - 2015 mandate is available here.

Membership of the Statutory Departmental Committees was subsequently agreed among the Party Whips in accordance with Standing Orders and formally announced to the Assembly the next day.

On 30 November 1999 the Secretary of State made the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Commencement Order No 5), resulting in the devolution of powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly from 2 December 1999.

Lord Alderdice was confirmed as Speaker upon devolution and continued to serve in that capacity until his retirement on 29 February 2004.

The Assembly after devolution

On 14 December 1999, the Assembly approved the appointment of two Junior Ministers, one each from the UUP and the SDLP.

Standing Orders made provision for six Standing Committees - Committee on Procedures, the Business Committee, the Public Accounts Committee, the Committee on Standards and Privileges and the Audit Committee.

The Speaker chairs the Business Committee and nominates the Deputy Chairpersons who act in his absence. On 15 December 1999, the Chairpersons and Deputy Chairpersons of the other five Standing Committees were nominated according to the d'Hondt procedure.

On 11 February 2000, following reports from the International Commission on Decommissioning that it had "received no information from the IRA as to when decommissioning will start", the then Secretary of State, Rt Hon Peter Mandelson MP, under powers derived from the Northern Ireland Act 2000, suspended the Executive and restored Direct Rule. An agreement was subsequently reached that allowed the restoration of devolution with effect from 30 May 2000.

The continuing argument about decommissioning led to the resignation of David Trimble as First Minister on 1 July 2001 followed, on 18 October 2001, by other UUP Ministers. To allow time to resolve that situation the Secretary of State ordered 24-hour suspensions of the Assembly on 10 August and 22 September 2001.

David Trimble was eventually re-elected on 5 November 2001 as First Minister along with Mark Durkan as Deputy First Minister to replace Seamus Mallon who had retired.

 

In the 11 months up to the most recent period of suspension, which began on 14 October 2002, the Executive, the Assembly and its Committees met regularly. Business transacted included the following:

  • The Executive produced a Draft Programme for Government (subtitled 'Reinvestment and Reform') and a Draft Budget for 2003-04.
  • The various Committees published nearly 50 reports on such diverse subjects as the foot-and-mouth-disease outbreak in Northern Ireland, protection of children and vulnerable adults, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, fur farming, the Water Service (leakage management and water efficiency) and housing and homelessness.
  • The Assembly debated and passed 17 Acts in 2001 and 14 in 2002. Members also began the practice of presenting public petitions on constituency related issues. The first of these was presented on 15 January 2002 by Maurice Morrow MLA on the subject of Trillick Agricultural Office.
  • There were many important and well-attended debates on such varied topics as the future of education, the Health Service, public accounts, telecommunications and the Children's Commissioner.
  • Members raised matters of importance in their own constituencies by means of Adjournment debates. The final Adjournment debate, which was the last matter for discussion in the first mandate, was on the subject of the future of the Mater Hospital in Belfast.

On Tuesday 8 October 2002 the Assembly debated a DUP motion expressing concern at the implications of a search of the Sinn Fein offices at Parliament Buildings on 4 October 2002 and the subsequent arrest of three Sinn Fein party members on spying charges. This led directly to the suspension of the Assembly by the Secretary of State on 14 October 2002.

Suspension and Restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly

On 14 October 2002 Rt Hon Dr John Reid MP, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, wrote to the Speaker informing him of his decision to suspend the devolved institutions. The Speaker relayed the Secretary of State's message to the Assembly that morning.

Business proceeded as planned that day, with suspension taking effect from midnight on 14 October 2002.

 

Following the suspension of the Assembly, legislation being considered by the Assembly was processed instead through Westminster, where it took the form of Orders in Council.

The Assembly was formally dissolved on 28 April 2003 in anticipation of an election in May 2003. The Secretary of State decided to postpone the election and it eventually took place on 26 November 2003. The results of the election changed the balance of power in the Assembly. In the first mandate, the Ulster Unionist Party was the largest party followed by the SDLP, the DUP and Sinn Fein. Following the November 2003 election, the party representation in the NI Assembly is as follows:

DUP

32 seats (this includes 3 members elected as Ulster Unionists who subsequently defected to the DUP)

Sinn Fein

24 seats

Ulster Unionists

24 seats

SDLP

18 seats

Alliance

6 seats

Independent

2 seats (this includes 1 member elected as DUP but subsequently became an Independent)

UKUP

1 seat

PUP

1 seat

The Assembly was restored to a state of suspension following the November 2003 election and since January 2004, political parties have been engaged in a review of the Belfast Agreement aimed at restoring the devolved institutions.

Following the passing of the Northern Ireland Act 2006 the Secretary of State created a non-legislative fixed-term Assembly, whose membership consisted of the 108 members elected in the November 2003 election. This met for the first time on 15 May 2006, its remit was to make preparations for the restoration of devolved government to Northern Ireland and for a fully restored Assembly. Its discussions informed the next round of talks called by the British and Irish Governments, held at St Andrews in October 2006.

The St Andrews Agreement of 13 October 2006 led to the establishment of the Transitional Assembly. The Northern Ireland (St.Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 set out a timetable to restore devolution in Northern Ireland and also set the date for the third election to the Northern Ireland Assembly as 7 March 2007. Devolution was to be restored on 26 March 2007 and it was the function of the Transitional Assembly to take the necessary steps for this to happen. At the election, the DUP and SF again had the largest number of MLAs elected. While power was not restored by 26 March an historic meeting took place between Dr Ian Paisley (the leader of the DUP at that time) and Gerry Adams (the leader of SF) at Parliament Buildings, Stormont. Both parties made a commitment to set up an Executive Committee in a Northern Ireland Assembly to which devolved powers were restored on 8 May 2007. The Executive Committee includes four Democratic Unionist Ministers, three Sinn Fein Ministers, two Ulster Unionist Ministers, and one Social Democratic and Labour Party Minister. The Rt Hon Peter Robinson MP MLA is currently the First Minister and Martin McGuinness MP MLA is currently deputy First Minister (the two Junior ministers are currently, Robin Newton MLA from DUP and Gerry Kelly MLA from SF).

Following the March 2007 election, the party representation in the NI Assembly is as follows:

Democratic Unionist Party
Sinn Féin 
Ulster Unionist Party 
Social Democratic and Labour Party
Alliance 
Green Party 
Independent Health Coalition 
Progressive Unionist Party
36 seats
28 seats
18 seats
16 seats 
7 seats
1 seats 
1 seats 
1 seats

 

Statistics for the 2011 - 2015 mandate can be found here.

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