The Assembly & Executive
What is the difference between the Assembly and the Executive?
The Assembly is the legislature, or law-making body for Northern Ireland, made up of 90 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), elected by the people to represent their views and make laws on their behalf. It meets in the Assembly Chamber of Parliament Buildings, in the grounds of the Stormont Estate in Belfast. All laws on Transferred Matters must be passed by the Assembly. It debates and scrutinises proposals for laws, suggests amendments and votes on whether they should become laws. Proposals for new laws are called Bills. When they have been passed by the Assembly and have received Royal Assent, they become Acts. The Assembly passed 67 laws during the 2011 to 2016 mandate. Most proposals for laws come from Executive Committee Ministers and are known as Executive Bills. Non-Executive Bills are those proposed by an MLA (Private Member's Bill) or an Assembly Committee (Committee Bill).
The Executive Committee – or ‘Executive’ – is the Government of Northern Ireland. Made up of Ministers in charge of government departments, it runs Northern Ireland and is responsible for delivering all our public services, such as health and education. There are 9 Northern Ireland Departments (reduced from 12 since May 2016). At the start of each mandate (5 year term), the Executive drafts a Programme for Government (PfG) and associated Budget, which have to be scrutinised and approved by the Assembly. The Executive then works with the Assembly towards completing the Programme for Government before the next election.
Unlike the Westminister system, where one party can govern alone (controlling all government departments) if they win a majority of seats in the House of Commons and the leader of that party becomes the Prime Minister, the Northern Ireland Executive must be a coalition government of at least two parties, representing unionists and nationalists. We have two people sharing the role of 'prime minister', the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. Following an election, the largest party nominates the First Minister and the largest party in the second largest community nominates the deputy First Minister. A system, called 'd'Hondt' is then used to appoint the other ministers on the Executive. This mathematical formula is based on party strength in the Assembly, that is, the number of seats parties have won in the election. So, the largest party gets 'first pick' of the departments and nominates one of their MLAs to be Minister of that Department. The d'Hondt formula is then applied to reduce that party's 'value' (no of seats divided by two after the first pick), and the largest party at that point gets second of departments and nominates the minister. The process continues until all positions are filled. Larger parties may get to nominate more than one Minister. A special arrangement is in place to appoint the Minister for Justice, who has to be elected by the Assembly with cross-community support, ie, the support of both nationalists and unionists.
In the 2011-16 mandate, four parties were entitled to seats in the Executive under d'Hondt. A Minister from a fifth party was elected as the Justice Minister. After the election of 5 May 2016, the UUP and SDLP decided not to take their seats on the Executive (they were entitled to one each) and and formed the first official opposition in the Assembly. The DUP had 4 Ministers and Sinn Féin had 3 Ministers. The Assembly elected an independent unionist as the Justice Minister. The Executive collapsed in January 2017, when Martin McGuinness MLA resigned as deputy First Minister, largely due to Sinn Féin's concerns around the DUP's handling of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme. Due to the joint nature of the office, First Minister, Arlene Foster MLA, also lost her position. This triggered the 'snap election' of March 2017, when the Assembly was reduced in size to 90 seats, from 108. The Executive was not restored until after the New Decade New Approach Deal in January 2020. When D'Hondt was run at that time, all parties entitled to nominate a Minister did so and, therefore, no official opposition was formed. The Executive was made up of a 5-party coalition. The Assembly elected the Alliance Party Leader, Naomi Long MLA as the Minister for Justice. In February 2022, Paul Givan MLA, the DUP First Minister, resigned over the issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol. His resignation meant that Michele O'Neill MLA automatically lost her position as deputy First Minister. The Assembly, however, was able to continue to meet and consider legislation already in progress.
Following the 7th Assembly election on 5 May 2022, the DUP refused to re-enter an Executive due to its continued concerns about the Northern Ireland Protocol. Although the Windsor Framework, agreed between the UK Government and the EU, addressed some of these concerns, it did not address all and Northern Ireland has had no operating Assembly or Executive since the last election. New legislation, the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022, allowed a much longer period for the Executive to be formed after an election - 24 weeks and for Ministers who had been in office before the election to remain in office (with 2 replacements) for that 24 week period, which ended on 28 October 2022. Since then, Permanent Secretaries of the Northern Ireland Civil Service have managed government departments.
See below for a list of the Northern Ireland government departments and their most recent ministers. The departments are listed in the order that they were selected by parties under d'Hondt, which is run following the nomination of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the election of the Justice Minister. D'Hondt ensures that ministerial positions are allocated to parties on the basis of their sucess in the election.
In the May 2022 election, Sinn Féin became the biggest party in the Assembly. When the institutions are restored, Sinn Féin will nominate the First Minister, the first nationalist First Minister in the history of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The DUP, as the largest party in the other main community (unionist) will nominate the deputy First Minister. The Alliance Party gained 9 seats in the 2022 election, taking them to a total of 17, which entitles the party, for the first time ever, to nominate a minister under the d'Hondt process. They will get 'third pick' after Sinn Féin and the DUP. The SDLP, which now has 8 seats (down from 12), will not get to nominate a minister, for the first time since the Assembly was established. Following new rules regarding official opposition (under the 'New Decade, New Approach' deal), which allow any party with at least 8% of the vote to form or become part of the official 'Opposition', the SDLP declared its intention in July 2022 to do so.
Departments and office holders January 2020 to October 2022
- Executive Office - First Minister and deputy First Minister - Paul Givan MLA, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Michelle O'Neill MLA, Sinn Féin (SF)
- Department of Justice - Naomi Long MLA, Alliance Party (elected with cross community support)
- Department for the Economy - Diane Dodds MLA (DUP)
- Department of Finance - Conor Murphy MLA (SF)
- Department of Education - Peter Weir MLA (DUP) until 2021, followed by Michelle McIlveen MLA (DUP)
- Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs - Edwin Poots MLA (DUP)
- Department for Communities - Deirdre Hargey MLA (SF)
- Department for Infrastructure - Nichola Mallon MLA, Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) before the 2022 election, followed by John O'Dowd MLA, Sinn Féin
- Department of Health - Robin Swann MLA, Ulster Unionist Party (UUP)
The Executive Committee meets in Stormont Castle, also on the Stormont Estate. Its work is co-ordinated by the Executive Office (First and deputy First Minister).
Ministers are responsible for day to day government operational decisions within their own areas of responsibility. They get together as the Executive Committee to draw up the draft Budget and Programme for Government (PfG) which have to be approved by the Assembly. The Executive approves the introduction of Executive Bills to the Assembly.
As the elected body which appoints the Ministers, the Assembly must hold the Executive to account, scrutinising Ministers’ proposals for new laws (Bills) and operational decisions. For every Government Department, there is an Assembly Statutory Committee which shadows the work of that Department and Minister. We now also have arrangements in place for an Official Opposition. MLAs can individually hold Ministers to account by asking written and oral questions and highlighting issues in Assembly debates and in the media which they want Ministers to address.
Play the video on the Assembly and Executive to see how D'hondt works.