Evolution of Devolution

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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 Executive which governed 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 old model. From 1929, 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 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. It is worth noting that, In 2022, the Alliance Party, which does not designate as unionist or nationalist, significantly increased its numbers of MLAs in the Assembly, from 8 to 17. It is considered by the Assembly to be in the third group or designation, called 'Other'.

There have been changes to the operation of the system since 1998.

The positions of First Minister and deputy First Minister are shared between the two communities, unionist and nationalist. As a result of the St Andrews' Agreement in in October 2006, the largest party nominates the First Minister and the largest party on the other side of the community nominates the deputy First Minister. Originally, they were elected together, on a 'joint ticket' and needed cross-community support.

Under the Hillsborough Agreement (February 2010), powers over policing and Justice were devolved, creating an additional government department - of Justice. The Stormont House Agreements of December 2014 and November 2015 ('Fresh Start') reduced the number of government departments  from 12 to nine (effective from May 2016) and the number of MLAs from 108 to 90 (effective from March 2017 election). In May 2016, an 'official opposition' was established for the first time. Although the UUP and SDLP were entitled to one minister each under d'Hondt, they opted out of the Executive to become the first Official Opposition.

The Executive Committee now consists of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and 8 other departmental ministers. This is mandatory coalition, which means that it is based on the strength of the mandate given to parties by voters in the election. A mathematical formula known as 'D’Hondt' is used to determine membership. Until 2016, the four main political parties had seats on the Executive Committee under d'Hondt, with the fifth largest party (Alliance) also represented, due to election of their candidate as the Justice Minister. This election of one Minister is a special arrangement due to the sensitive nature of policing and justice issues, given our history of conflict. Following the May 2022 election, Allliance gained the right to nominate a minister under D'Hondt.

The New Decade, New Approach Deal of January 2020 led to further developments in how the Assembly works, including the further strengthening of 'the Opposition', as any official opposition will now be called; and reform of the Petition of Concern mechanism by which 30 MLAs can request that a vote in the Assembly be taken on a cross-community basis. Now, a petition will require support from at least 2 parties and a vote on the matter will take place after 2 weeks, not at the next sitting of the Assembly. This will allow time for reflection and resolution of a contentious issue.

Many events influenced the model of devolution we have today. View further information, archive photos and video footage on our Evolution of Devolution timeline.