The Northern Ireland Assembly (Irish: Tionól Thuaisceart Éireann, Ulster Scots: Norlin Airlann Semmlie) 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 comprising 108 members who are known as Members of the Legislative Assembly, or MLAs. 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.

Previous legislatures:

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 Assembly and suspensions:

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:

11 February - 30 May 2000
10 August 2001 (24 hour suspension)
22 September 2001 (24 hour suspension)
14 October 2002 - 7 May 2007

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.

"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" (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 Transitional 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.

Composition:

Affiliation            Members

Democratic Unionist    36
Sinn Féin            27
Ulster Unionist        17
SDLP                16
Alliance             7
Green (NI)             1
(Independent)         4

Total    108


The Assembly's composition and powers are laid down in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Assembly's 108 members are 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. The 1998 Act provides that, unless the Assembly is dissolved early, elections should occur once in every four years on the first Thursday in May. However the second election to the Assembly was delayed by the UK government until 23 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 if those positions becoming vacant. The three elections held to the Assembly so far were the:

Northern Ireland Assembly election, 1998
Northern Ireland Assembly election, 2003
Northern Ireland Assembly election, 2007

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.

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 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:

exceed the competences of the Assembly;
violate European Union law;
violate the European Convention on Human Rights; or
discriminate against individuals on the grounds of political opinion or religious belief.

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:"

Each of the three regional devolved parts of governance in the UK, in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, because of the bodies' functions, must be seen in terms of the political concept of The Separation of Powers to be part of the Legislature of the United Kingdom. This is a recent development in the make up of the Legislature of the United Kingdom from the 1990s, since there are legislative members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the other devolved governances, who are not Members of Parliament. The central UK Parliament had been the only legislative body in The UK. This is a substantial amendment to the Legislature of The United Kingdom, since it is not required of persons to be Members of Parliament anymore to legislate within the nation.

Transferred matters:

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:

Agriculture and rural development - Michelle Gildernew, Sinn Féin
Culture, arts and leisure - Nelson McCausland, Democratic Unionist Party
Education - Caitríona Ruane, Sinn Féin
Employment and learning - Danny Kennedy, Ulster Unionist Party
Enterprise, trade and investment - Arlene Foster, Democratic Unionist Party
Environment - Edwin Poots, Democratic Unionist Party
Finance and personnel - Sammy Wilson, Democratic Unionist Party
Health, social services and public safety - Michael McGimpsey, Ulster Unionist Party
Justice - David Ford, Alliance Party of Northern Ireland
Regional development (including transport) - Conor Murphy, Sinn Féin
Social development (including housing) - Alex Attwood, Social Democratic and Labour Party

Reserved matters:

Reserved matters are outlined in Schedule 3 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998:

navigation (including merchant shipping)
civil aviation
The foreshore, sea bed and subsoil and their natural resources
postal services
import and export controls, external trade
national minimum wage
financial services
financial markets
intellectual property
units of measurement
telecommunications, broadcasting, internet services
the National Lottery
xenotransplantation
surrogacy
human fertilisation and embryology
human genetics
consumer safety in relation to goods

Excepted matters:

Excepted matters are outlined in Schedule 2 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998:

the Crown
Parliament
international relations
defence
immigration and nationality
taxation
national insurance
elections
currency
national security
nuclear energy
space

Procedure:

The Assembly has three primary mechanisms to ensure effective power-sharing:

in appointing ministers to the Executive, the d'Hondt system is followed so that ministerial portfolios are divided among the parties in proportion to their strength in the Assembly. This means all parties with a significant number of seats are entitled to at least one minister;

certain resolutions must receive "cross community support", or the support of a minimum number of MLAs from both communities, to be passed by the Assembly. Every MLA is officially designated as either Nationalist, Unionist or Other. The election of the First and Deputy First Ministers, the election of the Speaker and Deputy Speakers, any changes to the standing orders and the adoption of certain money bills must all occur with cross-community support. The election of the First and Deputy First Ministers must occur by parallel consent but in all other cases either form of cross community support is acceptable;

and any vote taken by the Assembly can be made dependent on cross-community support if a "Petition of Concern" is presented to the Speaker. A Petition of Concern may be brought by at least 30 of the 108 MLAs under Section 42(2) of the Northern Ireland 1998 where there are concerns about proposed legislation. In such cases, a vote on proposed legislation will only pass if supported by a weighted majority (60%) of members voting, including at least 40% of each of the Nationalist and Unionist designations present and voting. Effectively this means that, provided enough MLAs from a given community agree, that community can exercise a veto over the Assembly's decisions.

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.

Organisation:

The Assembly is chaired by the Speaker and three Deputy Speakers. Lord Alderdice served as the first regular Speaker of the Assembly, but retired to serve as part of the current Independent Monitoring Commission that supervises paramilitary ceasefires. The position is currently filled 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 a number of statutory committees each of which is charged with scrutinising the activities of a particular ministerial department. It also has a number of permanent standing committees and temporary ad hoc committees. The Chairmen and Deputy Chairmen of the committees are chosen by party nominating officers under a procedure similar to that used to appoint members of the Executive, i.e. the d'Hondt system. 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 were the statutory and standing committees of the Assembly at the time of its suspension in 2002:

Departmental committees:

Agriculture and Rural Development Committee
Culture, Arts and Leisure Committee
Education Committee
Employment and Learning Committee
Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee
Environment Committee
Finance and Personnel Committee
Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee
Justice Committee
Regional Development Committee
Social Development Committee
Committee for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister

Standing committees:

Committee on Procedures
Business Committee
Institutional Review Committee
Public Accounts Committee
Committee on Standards and Privileges
Audit Committee