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|Northern Ireland Assembly
Norlin Airlan Assemblie
Tionól Thuaisceart Éireann
|Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly||William Hay, (DUP)
since 8 May 2007
|Last election||5 May 2011|
|Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast|
The Northern Ireland Assembly (Irish: Tionól Thuaisceart Éireann, Ulster Scots: Norlin Airlan Assemblie) is the devolved legislature of Northern Ireland. It has power to legislate in a wide range of areas that are not explicitly reserved to the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and to appoint the Northern Ireland Executive. It sits at Parliament Buildings at Stormont in Belfast.
The latest incarnation of the Assembly was established under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, an accord aimed at bringing an end to Northern Ireland's violent 30-year Troubles. It is based on the principle of power-sharing under the D'Hondt method to ensure that Northern Ireland's largest political communities, the unionist and nationalist communities both participate in governing the region. The Assembly is a unicameral, democratically elected body currently comprising 108 members known as Members of the Legislative Assembly, or MLAs. 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. Members are elected under the single transferable vote form of proportional representation.
The Assembly has been suspended on several occasions, the longest suspension being from 14 October 2002 until 7 May 2007. When the Assembly was suspended, its powers reverted to the Northern Ireland Office. Following talks that resulted in the St Andrews Agreement being accepted in November 2006, an election to the Assembly was held on 7 March 2007 and full power was restored to the devolved institutions on 8 May 2007.
Powers in relation to policing and justice were transferred to the Assembly on 12 April 2010.
The third assembly was dissolved on 24 March 2011 in preparation for the elections to be held on Thursday 5 May 2011, this being the first assembly since the Good Friday Agreement to complete a full term. The fourth assembly convened on 12 May 2011.
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From 7 June 1921 until 30 March 1972, the devolved legislature for Northern Ireland was the Parliament of Northern Ireland. That Parliament consistently chose the Ulster Unionist Party to govern the region. The Parliament was suspended on 30 March 1972 and formally abolished in 1973 under the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973.
Shortly after this first parliament was abolished, attempts began to restore devolution on a new basis that would see power shared between nationalists and unionists. To this end a new parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, was established in 1973. However, this body was brought down by opposition from hard-line unionists and republicans and was abolished in 1974. In 1982 another Northern Ireland Assembly was established at Stormont, initially as a body to scrutinise the actions of the Secretary of State, the British minister with responsibility for Northern Ireland. It received little support from nationalists and was officially dissolved in 1986.
The modern Northern Ireland Assembly was first elected on 25 June 1998 and first met on 1 July 1998. However, it only existed in "shadow" form until 2 December 1999 when full powers were devolved to the Assembly. Since then the Assembly has operated only intermittently and has been suspended on four occasions:
Attempts to secure its operation on a permanent basis have been frustrated by disagreements between the two main unionist parties (the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party) and Sinn Féin, the largest nationalist party. Unionists refused to participate in the Good Friday Agreement's institutions alongside Sinn Féin until they were assured that the IRA had discontinued its activities, decommissioned its arms and disbanded.
The most recent suspension occurred after unionists withdrew from the Northern Ireland Executive after Sinn Féin's offices at Stormont were raided by the police investigating alleged intelligence gathering on behalf of the IRA by members of the party's support staff. The Assembly, already suspended, dissolved on 28 April 2003 as scheduled, but the elections due the following month were postponed by the United Kingdom government and were not held until November that year.
On 8 December 2005, three Belfast men at the centre of the alleged IRA spying incident (dubbed "Stormontgate") were acquitted of all charges. The prosecution offered no evidence "in the public interest." Afterwards Denis Donaldson, one of those arrested, said that the "charges should never have been brought" as the police action was "political." On 17 December 2005, Donaldson publicly confirmed that he had been a spy for British intelligence since the early 1980s. Mr Donaldson was killed on 4 April 2006 by the Real IRA.
Although the Assembly remained suspended from 2002 until 2007, the persons elected to it at the 2003 Assembly election were called together on 15 May 2006 under the Northern Ireland Act 2006 to meet in an assembly to be known as "the Assembly" (or fully "the Assembly established under the Northern Ireland Act 2006") for the purpose of electing a First Minister and Deputy First Minister and choosing the members of an Executive before 25 November 2006 as a preliminary to the restoration of devolved government.
On 23 May 2006 Ian Paisley, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) refused Sinn Féin's nomination to be First Minister alongside Sinn Féin's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, as Deputy First Minister. Eileen Bell was appointed by the Secretary of State Peter Hain to be the Speaker of the Assembly, with Francie Molloy and Jim Wells acting as deputies. The Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 repealed the Northern Ireland Act 2006 and thus disbanded "the Assembly".
The Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 provided for a "Transitional Assembly" (or fully "the Transitional Assembly established under the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006") to take part in preparations for the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland. A person who was a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly was also a member of the Transitional Assembly. Eileen Bell was Speaker of the Transitional Assembly and Francie Molloy and Jim Wells continued as deputies. The Transitional Assembly first met on 24 November 2006, when the proceedings were suspended due to a bomb threat by loyalist paramilitary Michael Stone. It was dissolved on 30 January 2007 when the election campaign for the current Northern Ireland Assembly started.
An election to the then-suspended Northern Ireland Assembly was held on 7 March 2007. Secretary of State, Peter Hain signed a restoration order on 25 March 2007 allowing for the restoration of devolution at midnight on the following day. The two largest parties following the election, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin, agreed to enter power-sharing government together, and an administration was eventually established on 10 May with Ian Paisley as First Minister and Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister.
|Traditional Unionist Voice||1|
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 Westminster Parliament. 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. However, 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 within six weeks of its first meeting or of those positions becoming vacant. The four elections held to the Assembly so far were the:
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.
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 policy differences.
During the 1998-2003 Assembly, the non-Executive parties (thus in opposition) were as follows:
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:
That number increased to nine at the 2007 Assembly election:
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. In the current Assembly, two parties are in opposition: Traditional Unionist Voice and the Green Party (1 seat each).
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, 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:
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.
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 'bloc' (understood to mean 'Unionist', 'Nationalist' and 'Other'). However the remaining ministers are not elected but rather 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 enumerated 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 effectively has power to legislate by decree. 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 legislative acts.
Unlike laws enacted by the Westminster Parliament, Acts of the Northern Ireland Assembly are subject to judicial review. A law can be struck down if it is found to:
Although the British monarch is not formally a component of the Assembly (as is the case at Westminster), all bills passed by the Assembly must receive Royal Assent to become law. If the Secretary of State believes that a bill violates the constitutional limitations on the powers of the Assembly, the Secretary of State will refuse to submit the bill to the monarch for Assent. If submitted by the Secretary of State, the monarch will, by convention, sign a bill into law. Acts of the Northern Ireland Assembly begin with the enacting formula: "Be it enacted by being passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly and assented to by Her Majesty as follows:".
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||Democratic Unionist|
|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||Arlene Foster||Democratic Unionist|
|Finance & Personnel||Sammy Wilson||Democratic Unionist|
|Health, Social Services & Public Safety||Edwin Poots||Democratic Unionist|
|Regional Development||Danny Kennedy||Ulster Unionist|
|Social Development||Nelson McCausland||Democratic Unionist|
The Assembly has three primary mechanisms to ensure effective power-sharing:
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.
|This section requires expansion.|
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 has been filled since 8 May 2007 by William Hay. In the Assembly, the Speaker and ten other members constitute a quorum.
The Assembly Commission is the body corporate of the Assembly. It ensures that the Assembly has the property, staff and services it needs to carry out its work. Legal proceedings taken for or against the Assembly are taken for or against the Commission on behalf of the Assembly. The staff of the Assembly are collectively known as the Assembly Secretariat.
The Assembly has 12 statutory committees, each of which is charged with scrutinising the activities of a particular 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:
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