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Evolution of Devolution

How has history influenced the way the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive operate today?

On 2 December 1999, the UK Parliament devolved powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time. Devolution was not new to Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Parliament and the Executive, which governed Northern Ireland between 1921 and 1972, were also devolved institutions. When they were suspended in 1972, Northern Ireland came under Direct Rule from Westminster.

The Northern Ireland Assembly model of devolution is very different from the older model. The Northern Ireland Parliament was elected using a 'First Past the Post' electoral system based on the Westminster system. The party that won a majority of the seats in the election formed the government. This was always the Unionist Party.

The system of devolved government established by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (1998) is a power-sharing, consociational model of democracy. The political scientist, Arend Lijphart, designed this model of democracy for societies where there has been, or is potential for, conflict. The Northern Ireland model is unique. It takes account of our political history. It is a power-sharing arrangement between the two main political communities in Northern Ireland, unionist and nationalist.

The positions of First Minister and deputy First Minister are shared between the two communities. The two have equal powers and must agree on all decisions.

The Executive Committee, made up of the First Minister, deputy First Minister and 10 other Ministers, is a mandatory coalition, determined by a mathematical formula, based on party strength in the Assembly, known as the D’Hondt System. This ensures that both communities share these positions of power. In May 2016, an Official Opposition was established for the first time by the UUP and SDLP. They were entitled to one minister each, but opted out of the Executive. Extra financial and research resouces are provided to the Official Opposition and it can determine Assembly businee on 10 plenary days per year. 

The Assembly has special voting procedures to prevent one community dominating the other. These ensure that certain Assembly decisions have cross-community support.

Many events influenced the model of devolution we have today. Subsequent to the 1998 Agreement, we have had the St Andrews Agreement (2006), the Hillsborough Agreement (2010), the Stormont House Agreement (2014) and the Fresh Start Agreement (2015).. View further information, archive photos and video footage on our Evolution of Devolution timeline.