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.

This means that local politicians, not those in London, now make laws about most of the everyday issues that affect us in Northern Ireland. The areas that the Assembly has power over are called Devolved or Transferred Matters.

The UK parliament still legislates for us in UK-wide or international matters, such as defence, foreign affairs or raising taxes. These are called Excepted and Reserved Matters.

The Assembly can make primary legislation and secondary (or subordinate) legislation. In general terms, primary legislation provides the framework of the law and secondary legislation contains the details. The power to make secondary legislation is set out in primary legislation. Secondary legislation adds the detailed rules and procedures known as Statutory Rules (SRs) in Northern Ireland. MLAs can amend these more easily than primary legislation. This allows MLAs to make changes to the details of laws quickly.

A proposal for a new law is called a Bill.When the Assembly passes the 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);
  • contradict European law, or the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR); or
  • discriminate against any person because of their religious belief or political opinion.

The Office of Legislative Counsel drafts Bills. This is a team of specially trained solicitors and barristers.

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.