The power to make laws

The Northern Ireland Assembly is the devolved legislature for Northern Ireland.

After the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (1998) the UK Parliament ended Direct Rule of Northern Ireland from London by handing over, or ‘devolving’, certain powers to the Assembly, called Devolved or Transferred Matters. The Assembly makes laws about most of the everyday issues that affect us in Northern Ireland.

The UK Parliament still legislates for Northern Ireland on UK-wide or international matters. These are called Excepted and Reserved Matters. Excepted Matters include defence, foreign affairs and income tax. These will always remain the responsibility of the UK Parliament. Reserved Matters include pensions regulations, import and export controls, and broadcasting. The Assembly may request that a reserved matter becomes transferred. This happened in 2010 when powers over policing and justice were devolved, following the Hillsborough Agreement.

The Assembly can make primary legislation and secondary (or subordinate) legislation, known as Statutory Rules (SRs) in Northern Ireland. In general terms, primary legislation provides the framework of the law and secondary legislation concerns the details. The power to make secondary legislation is set out in the relevant primary legislation or 'parent act'. Secondary legislation can be amended more easily than primary legislation. It allows the Assembly to make changes to the details of laws quickly.

A proposal for a new piece of primary legislation is called a Bill. When the Assembly passes a Bill it becomes an Act.

The Assembly cannot legislate on issues that are outside its powers, or ‘legislative competence’. Bills must not:

  • refer to excepted or reserved matters (unless the Assembly asks for special permission from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland);
  • contradict European law, or the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR); or
  • discriminate against any person because of their religious belief or political opinion.

A new Bill is presented to the Speaker who confirms that it meets the above conditions before it can be introduced to the Assembly. The Speaker will send it to the Human Rights Commission and Equality Commission for their approval.

Who can bring forward Bills to the Assembly?

Bills are introduced to the Assembly by:

  • Ministers (Executive Bills);
  • individual MLAs  (Private Members’ Bills); and
  • Committees (Committee Bills).

A private company or individual could also introduce a Private Bill, but this is unlikely to happen.