Northern Ireland Assembly

The Northern Ireland Assembly, frequently referred to by the metonym Stormont, 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 Assembly was in a period of suspension until January 2020, after it collapsed in January 2017 due to policy disagreements between its power-sharing leadership, particularly following the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal. In January 2020, the British and Irish governments agreed on a deal to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland.
The Assembly is a unicameral, democratically elected body comprising 90 members known as Members of the Legislative Assembly. Members are elected under the single transferable vote form of proportional representation In turn, the Assembly selects most of the ministers of the Northern Ireland Executive using the principle of power-sharing under the D'Hondt method to ensure that Northern Ireland's largest voting blocs, unionists and Irish nationalists, both participate in governing the region. The Assembly's standing orders allow for certain contentious motions to require a cross-community vote; in addition to requiring the support of an overall majority of members, such votes must also be supported by a majority within both blocs in order to pass.
The Assembly is one of two "mutually inter-dependent" institutions created under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the other being the North/South Ministerial Council with the Republic of Ireland. The Agreement aimed to end Northern Ireland's violent 30-year Troubles. The first Assembly election was held in June 1998.


Previous legislatures

From 7 June 1921 until 30 March 1972, the devolved legislature for Northern Ireland was the Parliament of Northern Ireland, which always had an Ulster Unionist Party majority and always elected a UUP government. 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 Irish nationalists and unionists. To this end a new parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, was established in 1973. However, this body was brought down by the Ulster Workers' Council strike 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 Irish nationalists and was officially dissolved in 1986.

Establishment and suspensions

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 formally established the Assembly in law, in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement. The first election of Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly was on 25 June 1998 and it 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 intermittently and has been suspended on five occasions:
Attempts to secure its operation on a permanent basis had been frustrated by disagreements between the two main unionist parties 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 2002–2007 suspension occurred when Unionists withdrew from the Northern Ireland Executive after Sinn Féin's offices at Stormont were raided by the police, who were investigating allegations of 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.

"The Assembly" and "the Transitional Assembly"

"The Assembly established under the Northern Ireland Act 2006"

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" 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.
Multi-party talks on 11-13 October 2006 resulted in the St Andrews Agreement, wherein Sinn Féin committed to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the mechanism for nominating First and deputy First Ministers was changed. Previously on 23 May 2006, Ian Paisley, leader of the DUP had refused Sinn Féin's nomination to be First Minister alongside Sinn Féin's chief negotiator, Martin McGuinness, as deputy First Minister; from St Andrews, these positions were now chosen by larger parties only, while other positions were voted in by sitting MLAs. Eileen Bell was appointed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Hain to be the Speaker of the Assembly, with Francie Molloy and Jim Wells acting as deputies. The Northern Ireland Act 2006 repealed the Northern Ireland Act 2006 and thus disbanded "the Assembly".

"The Transitional Assembly"

The St Andrews Agreement Act provided for a "Transitional Assembly" 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 DUP and Sinn Féin consolidated their positions as the two largest parties in the election and, agreed to enter power-sharing government together. An administration was eventually established on 10 May with Ian Paisley as First Minister and Martin McGuinness as deputy First Minister.

Ten years of power-sharing and three years of deadlock

This third Assembly was the first to complete a full term, and saw powers in relation to policing and justice transferred from Westminster on 12 April 2010. A five-year term came into effect with the fourth Assembly elected in 2011. Members elected Peter Robinson of the DUP as First Minister and Martin McGuinness as deputy First Minister. The subsequent period was dominated by issues of culture and dealing with the past which culminated in the Fresh Start Agreement of 2014. The first Official Opposition was formed by the UUP in the closing months of the fourth term. Following the election of the fifth Assembly in 2016, only the DUP and Sinn Féin took the seats they were entitled to in the fourth Executive, with Arlene Foster as First Minister and Martin McGuinness as deputy First Minister.
In the wake of the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, McGuinness resigned from the post, bringing an end to almost a decade of unbroken devolution. Sinn Fein withdrew from the Assembly, and a fresh election was held on 2 March. Negotiations mediated by then Secretary of State James Brokenshire missed the three-week deadline provided in law for the formation of an Executive. The passing of an extended legal deadline of 29 June left decisions on funding allocations in the hands of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and a budget for the ongoing 2017–18 financial year began its passage through the UK Parliament on 13 November. Over time, further legislation was passed for Northern Ireland at Westminster, repeatedly extending the deadline for Executive formation. In 2019 the UK Parliament amended one such Bill to legalise same-sex marriage and liberalise abortion in Northern Ireland more widely than in the rest of Britain and Ireland. Talks eventually succeeded under a third Secretary of State Julian Smith. The sixth Assembly resumed on 11 January 2020, shortly before the UK's exit from the European Union.

Powers and functions

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 parties of the largest and second largest Assembly 'block'. The Minister of Justice is appointed by cross-community agreement. The seven other ministerial positions are distributed among willing parties roughly proportionate to their share of seats in the Assembly by the D'Hondt method, with ministers chosen by the nominating officers of each party.
The Assembly has authority to legislate in a field of competences known as "transferred matters". These matters are not explicitly given 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 governs through procedures at Westminster. 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 Acts of the Assembly.
Acts of the Northern Ireland Assembly as with other subordinate legislatures are subject to judicial review. A law can be struck down if it is found to:
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:
matters are outlined in Schedule 3 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998:
matters are outlined in Schedule 2 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998:
The Assembly has three primary mechanisms to ensure effective power-sharing:
The Assembly has the power to call for witnesses and documents, if the relevant responsibility has been transferred to its remit. Proceedings are covered by privilege in defamation law.


The Assembly's composition is laid down in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It initially had 108 members elected from 18 six-member constituencies on the basis of universal adult suffrage. Under the Assembly Members Act 2016 the number of MLAs per constituency was reduced from 6 to 5, leaving a total of 90 seats. This took effect at the March 2017 election. The constituencies used are the same as those used for elections to the United Kingdom Parliament at Westminster.
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. The Northern Ireland Act 2014 was passed to bring the Northern Ireland Assembly into line with the other devolved legislatures and to extend each Assembly term to five years instead of four. 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. There have been six elections to the Assembly since 1998.


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. Alliance supports ending the official designation of identity requirement and the taking of important votes on the basis of an ordinary super-majority, as does the largest unionist party, the DUP.

Executive and Opposition

Which parties can appoint ministers to the Northern Ireland Executive is determined by a combination of mandatory coalition, the D'Hondt method and cross-community support, depending on the role, as explained above. Coalitions of between three and five parties have governed over the Assembly's history. The Executive of the Sixth Assembly was formed on 11 January 2020.
Unlike the United Kingdom Parliament and the Oireachtas, the Assembly had no provision for an official opposition to hold governing parties to account until legislation was passed in 2016. A party may now form or join an Assembly Opposition, granting it additional speaking, scrutiny and funding rights, if it was entitled to Ministerial roles under the D'Hondt method and declined them, or if it wins 8% or more of the seats. This opportunity was qualified for and taken by the UUP and SDLP following the 2016 election. Even within the Executive, however, the parties have frequently voted against each other due to political and/or policy differences.

Historical participation

Alongside independents, a total of 15 parties have held seats in the Assembly since 1998:
The course of the Assembly saw a marked shift in party allegiance among voters. At the 2003 election, the DUP and Sinn Féin displaced the more moderate UUP and SDLP as the largest parties in the unionist and nationalist blocks. The parties only agreed to share power after four years of negotiations and a new election.
The DUP, Sinn Féin, SDLP and UUP have remained the largest parties in the Assembly and so far the only ones entitled to ministerial roles in the Executive under the D'Hondt method. However, there has been growing support for parties designated "Other". The centrist Alliance party secured the roles of Speaker from 1998 to 2007 and Minister of Justice from 2010 to 2016 thanks to cross-community support, and has seen an increase in its seat wins from 6 to 8. While the NI Women's Coalition disbanded in 2003, two leftist parties, the Green Party in Northern Ireland and People Before Profit Alliance, won their first seats, in 2007 and 2016, respectively.
A rapidly shifting landscape of smaller unionist parties has also been a feature of the Assembly. In 1999 the UK Unionist Party lost four of its five MLAs, disagreeing over a protest against Sinn Féin. The four formed the NI Unionist Party, which again suffered a split and won no seats in the 2003 election. That election also saw the electoral demise of a loose trio of independently-elected unionists who had united as the United Unionist Coalition. Minor unionist parties flourished again after the 2011 election, which saw the disappearance of the PUP from the Assembly and the election of the TUV, a splinter group from the DUP opposed to the St Andrews Agreement. In 2012, a suspended UUP member became UKIP's first MLA, and in 2013 two UUP MLAs resigned to form the progressive NI21, which later split. Of these only the TUV survived the 2016 and 2017 elections.
Disagreements within the Executive precipitated the resignation of the UUP in 2015, and following the 2016 election they and the SDLP formed the first Assembly Opposition. The row also saw Alliance relinquish its Justice role, joining the Greens, PBPA and TUV in unofficial opposition. Independent unionist Claire Sugden gained the cross-community support needed to take over the Ministry of Justice.
An Executive was formed on 11 January 2020 following the 2017 election results, which saw the unionist block lose its Assembly majority for the first time. The usual four largest parties have won enough seats to win ministerial roles under D'Hondt. With the reduction in the number of Assembly seats, the 8% threshold now amounts to eight rather than nine seats, qualifying Alliance to enter official opposition if they choose. The Greens have retained their two seats and the TUV and Claire Sugden their single seats, while People Before Profit now hold only one seat.
The table below details changes in members' allegiances and parties' seat possessions.


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 possibility of by-elections or co-options was established by the Northern Ireland Act 1998. 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.
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 and no by-election was held. His seat remained vacant until the 2007 Northern Ireland Assembly election.
Dáil Éireann, the lower house of the Oireachtas, uses the same single transferable vote system for elections as the Assembly but does allow by-elections to fill vacancies. This method is also used for the seats chosen by election in the upper house, Seanad Éireann.


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 is currently held by the Sinn Féin MLA Alex Maskey. In the Assembly, the Speaker and ten other members constitute a quorum.
The Assembly Commission is the body corporate of the Assembly with all that that entails. It looks after the pay and pensions of members directly and through tax-payer funded appointees, and the interests of political parties. The very first bill of the Assembly was to do with members' pensions and was taken through with minimum ado by a member of the Commission.
The Assembly has 9 statutory committees, each of which is charged with scrutinising the activities of a single 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:

Statutory (departmental) committees