Post 16 Glossary

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Act

When a Bill passes through all of the stages of the law-making process in the Northern Ireland Assembly and receives Royal Assent, it becomes a law and is called an Act.

Ad Hoc Committees

Temporary Committees that are sometimes set up to look at specific issues, eg, reserved matters that the Secretary of State wishes to consult the Assembly about.

Adjournment

The suspension of a meeting until the next time.

Adjournment Debate

Debates held at the end of the plenary session, usually on a Tuesday, about a matter in a particular constituency. The Minister in charge of the relevant area of government is present for the debate. MLAs do not vote on the motion and the Minister does not have to act on the issue. Adjournment debates are a useful way for MLAs to demonstrate that they are representing their constituents well, by highlighting and pressing for action on an issue that concerns them.

Agreement

The British and Irish Governments reached the Agreement, also called the Belfast Agreement or Good Friday Agreement, on 10 April 1998. Most political parties in Northern Ireland supported the Agreement. It was the culmination of a peace process that was designed to resolve the issues that had led to 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland. The Agreement was endorsed by 71 per cent of the electorate in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive Committee were established, together with ‘North–South’ and ‘East–West’ institutions. See British–Irish Council, British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference, North–South Ministerial Council, North–South Implementation Bodies, and St Andrews Agreement.

Amendment

Ministers, Committees or individual MLAs can suggest changes, or amendments, to a Bill. MLAs then debate the proposed amendments in the Assembly Chamber and vote on whether the Bill should be changed.

Applicability Motion

Under the new arrangements in the Windsor Framework, the UK will  not agree for new EU acts to be added to the Windsor Framework, and therefore to apply in Northern Ireland, unless the Assembly passes an 'applicability motion' with cross-community support

Arend Lijphart

A political scientist and leading authority on consociationalism – power-sharing models of democracy for segmented societies

Assembly

See Northern Ireland Assembly.

Assembly Chamber

The room, in Parliament Buildings, where the Assembly meets to conduct its business in Plenary session

Assembly Commission

The body corporate of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which ensures that the Assembly has the property, staff and services required to carry out its work. The Speaker chairs it and another five MLAs (from the main parties) are members.

Bill

A proposed new law, as it passes through the stages of consideration by the Assembly. If the Assembly passes the Bill and it receives Royal Assent, it becomes an Act of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Bills can be either Public or Private. Public Bills deal with matters of general public interest. Private Bills deal with matters that relate to individuals or companies. Almost all Bills are public and most are introduced by Ministers and are known as Executive Bills. Individual MLAs can also introduce Public Bills, known as Members’ Bills. A Committee member can introduce a Public Bill on behalf of a Committee. These are Committee Bills.

British–Irish Council

A forum for exchanging information and discussing and developing policies for co-operation in matters of mutual interest, including drugs, the environment and transport. The Council was established under the Agreement. It promotes positive and practical relationships between its members. Members of the Council represent the British and Irish Governments, the devolved institutions of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man.  
www.britishirishcouncil.org/

British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference

Established by the Agreement to replace similar bodies set up as part of the 1985 Anglo–Irish Agreement. Members of the British and Irish Governments meet to promote ‘East–West’ co-operation on matters of mutual interest. Northern Ireland Ministers attend meetings when the Conference discusses matters that concern Northern Ireland. The Conference does not discuss matters that have been devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Budget

A financial statement that includes an estimate of Government income and planned expenditure. In Northern Ireland, it is the responsibility of the Minister of Finance and Personnel.

Business Committee

Comprising the Speaker (Chair) and Chief Whips from the main political parties, this Committee agrees on what business the Assembly will deal with in plenary meetings in the Assembly Chamber.

Business Office

Supports plenary meetings of the Assembly and advises the Speaker on Assembly business procedures. Members go the Business Office to ‘table’ motions for debate and questions for Ministers.

Chief Whip

The most senior whip in a political party. He/she ensures that elected representatives attend parliamentary sessions and vote according to party instructions.

Civic Forum

A consultative body established under the Agreement. It comprises 60 representatives from the business, trade union, voluntary and other sectors of civic society. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister appoint the chairperson of the Forum. It was not restored with other institutions in May 2007. Its role and structure are currently under review.

Civil Servants

Permanent administrative staff who work for Ministers in Executive/Government Departments and implement Government policies

Clerks

People who organise business for plenary sessions and Committees and guide MLAs

Coalition

A type of government/executive in which more than one political party shares the power to govern

Code of Conduct

The Assembly Code of Conduct is a set of rules that MLAs must adhere to. For example they must not use their positions to benefit any individual or group in return for payment or other gift, and they must declare any interests held outside the Assembly. See Register of Members’ Interests. There is also a Ministerial Code of Conduct.

Commissioner for Standards

An independent person, appointed by the Assembly to investigate complaints about the conduct of Ministers and MLAs in relation to the Assembly Code of Conduct and the Ministerial Code. 

Committees

Groups of 9 MLAs appointed to carry out specific functions. The main types of committee in the Northern Ireland Assembly are Ad Hoc Committees, Joint Committees, Standing Committees and Statutory Committees.

Committee Stage

A part of the law-making process. After the Assembly has debated the general principles of a Bill at the Second Stage, members vote on whether to take the Bill further. If the Assembly agrees, the Bill moves to the Committee Stage where Committees examine it in detail and report their findings to the Assembly.

Concurrent Committee

Committees meeting together to consider an issue which is a Matter of Joint Concern.

Consociational

A power-sharing model of democracy, designed for countries or regions where there has been, or there is potential for, conflict. The Northern Ireland Model has a multi-party Executive. It shares power between political parties. It also shares the positions of First Minister and deputy First Minister between the nationalist and Unionist communities. Certain Assembly and Executive decisions require cross-community support.

Constituency/Constituents

A constituency is a geographical area (electoral district) of Northern Ireland. Each constituency elects five MLAs to the Northern Ireland Assembly and one Member of Parliament to Westminster. Northern Ireland has 18 constituencies. MLAs represent their constituents.

Cross-Community Support

A special voting procedure that ensures the support of both Unionists and Nationalists. Certain decisions, including electing the Speaker and Deputy Speakers, changing standing orders, excluding a Minister from office, and decisions on financial matters, all require cross-community support. This can be achieved by parallel consent (the support of over 50 percent of all those voting*, including over 50 percent of both designated Nationalists and designated Unionists) or by weighted majority (which requires the support of 60 percent of those voting, including 40 percent of designated Nationalists and 40 percent of designated Unionists). MLAs can bring about a cross-community vote if at least 30 of them sign a notice for the Speaker, called a Petition of Concern, expressing their concern over a particular matter.  
* including ‘others’, such as Alliance.

Debate

MLAs oppose or support a motion by discussing it in the Assembly Chamber and then voting accordingly.

Democracy

A system of government in which people choose representatives in free and fair elections. The Government is accountable to the people and the people have the right to criticise it. There is freedom of speech and of the press.

Departments

The Assembly has 8 departments (plus the Executive Office) that are responsible for implementing laws and delivering public services. A Minister from the Executive Committee leads each department and is responsible for its work.

Deputy First Minister

The deputy First Minister and the First Minister chair meetings of the Executive Committee together. Both have responsibility for the functions of the Executive Office. The largest party in the Assembly nominates the First Minister and the largest party in the other designation (Nationalist or Unionist) nominates the deputy First Minister.

Designation

After elections to the Assembly, every MLA must sign the Roll of Membership and enter a designation of identity: either ‘Nationalist’, ‘Unionist’ or ‘Other’. This allows cross-community voting on decisions that require the support of both Unionists and Nationalists. See Cross-Community Support.

Devolution

The transfer of certain powers from a central Government to a regional government. This allows the regional government to make decisions at a local level. The UK Parliament at Westminster first devolved powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly at midnight on 1 December 1999. It has also devolved power to the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament.

Devolved Matters

See Transferred Matters.

Direct Rule

When Westminster governed Northern Ireland directly, through a Secretary of State assisted by several Ministers. Direct Rule began in March 1972. It continued, despite attempts to re-establish devolution, until Westminster devolved power to the Northern Ireland Assembly in December 1999. When the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended, Westminster reinstated Direct Rule.

D’Hondt System

A system the Assembly uses to allocate ministerial positions and appoint committee Chairpersons and Deputy Chairpersons. This ensures that the Assembly allocates positions of power in proportion to the number of seats each party holds on the first day it meets after an election.

Dissolution

The official term for the adjournment of the Assembly, pending elections to a new Assembly

Division

A recorded vote in the Assembly Chamber. When there is no clear result from a ‘voice vote’ or if Members challenge the Speaker’s decision, he/she may order a division. Members go to the Division Lobbies on either side of the Chamber according to which way they want to vote: ‘ayes’ to the Speaker’s right and ‘noes’ to his/her left. See Voting.

Division Lobbies

The corridors on either side of the Assembly Chamber where votes are counted during a Division

Electorate

Those over 18 who are registered to vote.

Equality Commission

An independent public body established under the Northern Ireland Act (1998). It aims to advance equality, promote equality of opportunity, encourage good relations (between different communities) and challenge discrimination.

Excepted Matters

Matters that have not been transferred to the Assembly and remain the responsibility of the UK Parliament. They are usually matters of national importance, for example foreign affairs, defence and taxation. See reserved matters and transferred matters.

Executive Committee

The ‘Cabinet’ or ‘Government’ of Northern Ireland is made up of ministers appointed by the Assembly. It introduces new laws and oversees their implementation. It prioritises Government proposals and plans, producing a Programme for Government and a Budget. The Assembly must agree both of these. The Executive Committee consists of the First Minister, the deputy First Minister (assisted by two Junior Ministers) and 8 Ministers appointed to take responsibility for Departments.

Executive Office

The Executive Office is name of the government department run by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. It organises and sets the agenda for meetings of the Executive Committee. It has overall responsibility for the Programme for Government, budget, economic policy and the Executive's legislative programme. It is also responsible for relations with UK government departments and North-South relations; protection of human rights and promoting equality; and for victims and survivors of the 'Troubles'/conflict.

Executive Power

The power of government to lead in making policy and initiating legislation concerning the government of a country or region, and to carry out (execute) decisions including the implementation of laws.

First Minister

The largest party in the Assembly nominates the First Minister. The First Minister and the deputy First Minister together chair meetings of the Executive Committee and share responsibility for the functions of the Executive Office.

First Past the Post (FPTP)

The system used to elect Members of Parliament (MPs) to the UK Parliament. Voters mark an X beside one candidate’s name. The candidate with the most votes wins the seat.

Fresh Start Agreement

Reached in November 2015, this agreement was necessary due to the failure to implement the welfare reform element of the Stormont House Agreement and unionist concern about the status of the IRA, which led to the withdrawal of UUP and DUP Ministers from the Executive. It was agreed that the legislation on welfare reform would be passed by the UK Parliament; a body would be set up to report on paramilitary activity; and the rest of the Stormont House Agreement should be implemented.

Government

The elected representatives appointed as Ministers in charge of Government Departments. The Northern Ireland Government is called the Executive Committee. On a UK level, Government refers to the Prime Minister and Cabinet in Westminster. Government with a small ‘g’ refers the different branches of government, including the Assembly (the law making body) and the Executive.

Hansard

See Official Report.

Hillsborough Agreement

The February 2010 Agreement that led to the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Assembly in April 2010

Human Rights Commission

An independent statutory body established under the Northern Ireland Act (1998). It promotes awareness of the importance of human rights, reviews existing law and practice, and advises government on human rights.

Independent

A member of the Assembly who does not belong to, or represent, a political party is called 'Independent'. A candidate may stand as an 'Independent' in an election, or a sitting MLA may leave their political party and become 'Independent'.

Inquiries

Investigations, carried out by Assembly Committees, into problems or issues of concern to the people of Northern Ireland. Committees report their findings to the Assembly and make recommendations to Ministers on how to make progress on these issues .

Joint Committees

Set up to deal with a matter of concern to two or more committees. Committees can also sit concurrently to consider such issues.

Junior Ministers

MLAs who assist departmental Ministers. There are two Junior Ministers attached to the Executive Office.

Laws

Rules stating what can and cannot be done in a country. In Northern Ireland, the Assembly makes laws about transferred (devolved) matters. The UK Parliament at Westminster makes laws about reserved and excepted matters.

Leader of the Opposition

The Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly is the appointed by the biggest party which chooses to enter Opposition. Any party with 8% or more of the votes in an Assembly election may choose to enter the Opposition. 

Legislation

Law or a set of laws

Legislative Assembly/Legislature

A Law making body with the power to pass laws

Lobbying

An attempt, by an individual or group, to influence those in power to make decisions in their interest

Mandate

The authority voters give to a party or a candidate to act on their behalf. Mandate may also refer to the time period between elections, eg the 2011 to 2016 mandate.

Mandatory Coalition

The Northern Ireland Assembly is a Mandatory Coalition. Proportional Representation (PR) election systems tend to produce coalition governments/executives – with Ministers from more than one political party forming the government. Most coalition governments are formed by voluntary agreement between political parties. In the Northern Ireland system, membership of that coalition is not on the basis of voluntary agreement. It is determined by the d’Hondt mathematical formula, based on the number of seats a party wins in the Assembly election. The number of Ministers a party has in the Executive depends on its mandate from the electorate. The word ‘mandatory’ can also mean ‘compulsory’. However parties do not have to go into the Executive, so the Executive Committee is not a compulsory coalition.

Matters of Joint Concern

Where a matter may be of concern to 2 or more committees, it may be dealt with in 3 ways: by agreement that one committee should take responsibility while seeking the views of other committees; by the committees sitting concurrently – together - to jointly consider evidence and produce a report for the Assembly; or by the establishment of an ad hoc Joint Committee, with members from the relevant Committees, which appoints its own chairperson and deputy chairperson.

Matters of the Day

An MLA may make a formal request to the Speaker for permission to make a statement to the Assembly on a matter of exceptional public interest and importance which affects the people of Northern Ireland and which has arisen since the Assembly was last adjourned. The request must usually be made before 9.30 am on the relevant sitting day.

Member

A Member of the Assembly (MLA). The term 'Member' are 'Members' is used within the Assembly when referring to MLAs.

Member’s Bill

Formerly known as 'Private Member's Bills', a Bill introduced by an individual MLA who is not an Executive Minister

MLA

One of 90 Members of the Legislative Assembly/Legislature elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly

Ministers

The heads of Departments who, together with the First Minister and deputy First Minister, make up the Executive Committee. They are responsible for formulating policy and delivering public services in a particular area, for example agriculture, health or education. Ministers and their Departments are accountable to the Assembly in carrying out their Executive functions. The Assembly appoints Ministers using the d’Hondt formula, which is based on the number of seats held by the political parties represented in the Assembly. However the Minister for Justice was elected on a cross-community basis. See Executive Committee.

Ministerial Code

A set of rules that all Ministers must follow while exercising their duties and responsibilities. The Code requires Ministers to adhere to a Pledge of Office, a Ministerial Code of Conduct and the Seven Principles of Public Life. For further details, go to www.northernireland.gov.uk

Ministerial Statement

A statement made by a Minister to the Assembly, usually to announce a new policy initiative. It may also be about a North–South Ministerial Council meeting or current issue.

Motion

Formal proposal or statement for debate in the Assembly Chamber, usually calling for action

New Decade, New Approach

The basis for the return of devolved government in January 2020. Following talks, it was presented to political parties by the British and Irish governments. It sought to make government more stable, and more open and transparent and set out a plan for the new Executive. It resulted in reform of the Petition of Concern and a stronger official opposition, known as 'the Opposition'.

Northern Ireland Act (1998)

The law the UK Parliament passed to allow the implementation of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. The Assembly’s powers come from this law, the Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement Act (2006).

Northern Ireland Assembly

The devolved government of Northern Ireland. It consists of 90 elected MLAs. The Assembly was established following the signing of the Belfast, or Good Friday, Agreement. It has full legislative authority over transferred matters (the power to make laws about local matters). The Assembly appoints an Executive Committee to carry out executive functions. See Devolution.

Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO)

Led by the Comptroller and Auditor General, the NIAO, carries out financial and value for money audits (checks) on the accounts of government bodies in Northern Ireland, including government departments. It works closely with the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee.

Northern Ireland Civil Service

The permanent employees working in the 9 government departments of the Northern Ireland Executive. Known as 'civil servants', they work to develop and implement policies and legislation. Civil servants should be politically impartial. The most senior civl servant in a government deparment is the Permanent Secretary. In the case of the Executive Office, it is the Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

Northern Ireland Government

The Executive Committee of Ministers in charge of Government Departments, led by the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Executive powers have been devolved from Westminster to Executive Ministers.

Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022

A law passed in Westminster following the New Decade, New Approach Deal. It allows extra time (24 weeks) to form an Executive following an election, with ministers in position during that time. There is a new Ministerial Code of Conduct aimed at ensuring greater openness and transparency, and the Petitions of Concern procedure is reformed. A petition (to require cross-community support for a decision) now requires the support of at least 2 parties and there will be a 2 week, 'cooling off' period before a vote on the issue .

Northern Ireland Office

A department of the UK Government that serves the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Under Direct Rule, the Secretary of State and Northern Ireland Office Ministers had responsibility for Government Departments in Northern Ireland. Now, with powers devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Secretary of State retains responsibility for reserved and excepted matters.

Northern Ireland Protocol

A post-Brexit trading arrangement to allow the EU to check goods entering the EU (Ireland), from the UK (Northern Ireland), without creating a 'hard' border between North and South. Goods coming from Great Britain are checked at Northern Ireland ports instead. Opposition to the Protocol by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) prevented the formation of an Executive following the May 2022 election. The Windsor Framework made changes to the operation of the Protocol, in an effort to alleviate the DUP's concerns about checks on good travelling within the United Kingdom.

North–South Implementation Bodies

Six North–South Implementation Bodies were established by the Agreement. They implement policies agreed by Ministers in the North–South Ministerial Council and develop cross-border co-operation on practical matters of mutual concern. The six bodies are:

  • Waterways Ireland;
  • The Food Safety Promotion Board;
  • InterTrade Ireland;
  • The Special EU Programmes Body;
  • The Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission; and
  • The Language Body, composed of Foras na Gaeilge and Tha Boord o Ulstèr-Scotch.

North–South Ministerial Council (NSMC)

A forum, established by the Agreement, for Ministers from the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Irish Government to co-operate on an all-Ireland basis. They consult on matters of mutual interest, for example agriculture and transport. The six bodies are:Government, headed by the First Minister and deputy First Minister. It has a wide range of responsibilities including economic policy, (NSMC), international relations, children and young people, and the Civic Forum. It also has overall responsibility for the Programme for Government.

Official

A person who works for a Government Department or is involved in public administration

Official Opposition

First introduced in May 2016, when parties which were entitled, under d’Hondt, to a Minister or Ministers could choose to opt out of the Executive and form an official opposition, entitled to research and financial assistance, extra speaking and questioning rights in plenary meetings, and the right to determine Assembly business on 10 plenary days per year. The New Decade, New Approach Agreement resulted in the strengthening of entitlements, and any party with at least 8% of the seats in the Assembly can now enter what is now called 'the Opposition'.

Official Report (Hansard)

The official record of what members say in the Assembly each day and of all the decisions the Assembly makes. It also records written answers to Assembly questions and reports on specific Committee meetings. It is also known as Hansard, after Thomas Hansard who began publishing a daily record of proceedings in the House of Commons in the early 19th Century.

Oral Questions/Questions for Oral Answer

Questions MLAs ask Ministers that require an oral answer during Assembly Question Time. From September 2013, Ministers also answer Topical Questions. See separate entry

Order paper

A publication that lists the order of business (agenda for plenary meeting of the Assembly)

Orders in Council

Under Direct Rule, most legislation for Northern Ireland went through Westminster as Orders in Council. This is a form of subordinate legislation in the UK context, but in Northern Ireland it was equivalent to primary legislation.

Parliament

The UK Parliament at Westminster. Northern Ireland elects 18 Members of Parliament (MPs). The UK Parliament legislates for Northern Ireland in respect of reserved and excepted matters.

Parliament Buildings

The home of the Northern Ireland Assembly, on the Stormont Estate on the outskirts of Belfast. It was originally built to house the Northern Ireland Parliament.

Petition of Concern

A notice signed by at least 30 MLAs and presented to the Speaker. It usually expresses concern about a motion before the Assembly. If the Speaker rules that the petition of concern should apply to a motion, the vote will require cross-community support.

Permanent Secretary

The most senior civil servant in a government department who is responsible for running the day-to-day activities of the department and advising the Minister. As civil servants, permanent secretaries are non-political and hold their position for a number of years, which is why they are called 'permanent'.

Plenary

A meeting of the Assembly in the Assembly Chamber. These meetings are open to the public and usually held on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Point of Order

A matter concerning the rules of parliamentary procedure raised during consideration of a motion. In the Chamber, if a MLA feels that another Member has broken the rules of the ‘House’, they can interrupt the debate by rising from their seat and saying: ‘Point of Order, Mister Speaker'. The Member then explains why they think a rule has been broken. The Speaker must decide whether the MLA has a valid point and make a ruling if necessary.

Policy

Proposals for public services, such as education and healthcare. Political parties state their policies in their election manifestos. Government Departments and Ministers also develop and implement policies.

Political Party

A group of people with similar views about how a country or region should be run. They try to get members elected so that they will have the power to influence decisions and laws.

Presiding Officer

A chairperson. The other UK devolved institutions – the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly –  use this term, rather than Speaker.

Primary Legislation

Acts of the Northern Ireland Assembly (or the Westminster Parliament) that set out the framework of the law (parent legislation). Subordinate legislation, also known as Statutory Rules in Northern Ireland, contains the details. See Orders in Council.

Priority Written Question

A questions that a Minister must answer within five working days of being asked

Private Member’s Motion

A motion for debate, introduced by an individual MLA. The Business Committee decides what motions to put on the agenda for plenary business.

Privileges

Special rights granted to elected representatives. For example, MLAs cannot be sued for libel if they say something in the Chamber that may damage the reputation of a person or company.

Programme for Government (PfG)

An outline of the Executive Committee’s priorities and plan of action, incorporating the Budget. The Assembly must pass the Programme for Government and Budget. A vote on the Budget requires cross-community support.

Procedures

How the Assembly conducts its business

Proportional Representation

An electoral system (there are several types) where the number of seats won corresponds closely with the proportion of total votes cast for each party. For example, in a perfectly proportional system, a party that gains 30 percent of the votes in an election will win 30 percent of the seats. See Single Transferable Vote.

Public Accounts Committee (PAC)

One of the Assembly's Standing Committee, PAC, works with the Northern Ireland Audit Office to hold government departments to account for their spending decisions. A report by PAC into the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme led to a political crisis which brought Northern Ireland's government institutions down in January 2017.

Public Petition

A petition requesting action by government on a particular issue, signed by numerous members of the public. The Petition is presented to the Assembly by an MLA. In practice the Member will make some brief introductory remarks about the content of the petition and the number of signatories before formally presenting it to the Speaker. The Speaker then arranges for the petition to be sent to the relevant Minister and copied to the Chairperson of the relevant statutory committee. The Minister will normally respond to Members or to the Speaker at some stage thereafter outlining what action is being taken on the issue.

Public Services

Services provided by government for the general public, for example hospitals, schools, road and water services

Public Service Ombudsman

Receives and investigates complaints about public bodies.

Standards and Privileges

The Committee for Standards and Privileges is a Standing Committee of the Assembly has responsibility for the Assembly's Code of Conduct and considering complaints against MLAs for alleged breaches of the Code.

Stormont Brake

Under the Windsor Framework, 30 MLAs, from at least 2 parties, can notify the UK Government that they wish to stop ('pull the brake on') the application of a law which amends or replaces an existing EU law applying in Northern Ireland. 

Questions

See Oral Questions, Oral Questions/Questions for Oral Answer, Question Time and Written Questions.

Questions for Urgent Oral Answer

Questions submitted by MLAs at short notice. They must be, in the opinion of the Speaker, of an urgent and important nature. Ministers must be given at least four hours’ notice before they have to answer. These questions are normally asked immediately after Question Time.

Question Time

The time set aside each week (usually 2.00 to 3.30pm on Mondays and Tuesdays) for MLAs to question Ministers about their Departments’ work. The questions asked in the Assembly Chamber are known as Oral Questions. They are submitted by MLAs and then randomly selected by computer. Questions selected but not answered orally, during the time allowed, receive a written answer from the Minister. See Written Questions and Topical Questions.

Referendum

When a government asks the electorate to vote yes or no on a single political question

Referrals for Executive Review

A procedure the Assembly uses to refer a Ministerial decision to the Executive Committee for consideration. At least 30 Members must petition the Assembly, expressing concern that the decision contravenes the Ministerial Code or is a matter of public importance that needs to be considered by the Executive as a whole. The First Minister and deputy First Minister, acting jointly, can also determine whether the Executive Committee (rather than an individual Minister) should deal with a significant or controversial matter.

Register of Members’ Interests

MLAs must declare any interests held outside the Assembly (for example jobs, consultancy work, gifts or membership of organisations) that might affect their behaviour in the Assembly. See Code of Conduct.

Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme (RHI)

A scheme run by the Department for the Economy (then called 'Enterprise, Trade and Investment) to encourage businesses to use renewable energy (wood pellets). Costs overran and the scheme was investigated by the Public Accounts Committee. The controversy led the collapse of the Assembly and Executive in January 2017. A public inquiry concluded that the scheme was poorly designed and managed.

Representation

This refers to representative democracy, when people vote to elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf. For example, the people of Northern Ireland are represented by MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Members of Parliament (MPs) in the UK Parliament's House of Commons at Westminster and Councillors in Local Government. We also talk about representation in relation to political parties - most MLAs represent political parties and certain parties are represented in the Assembly. 

Reserved Matters

Matters concerning Northern Ireland that the UK Parliament still has the power to make laws about. The UK Parliament may transfer responsibility for these matters (for example postal services and the minimum wage) to the Assembly in the future. Policing and justice powers were reserved matters before Westminster transferred them in April 2010. Bills can only refer to reserved matters with the Secretary of State’s consent. See Excepted Matters and Transferred Matters.

Royal Assent

The last stage of the legislative process. When the Assembly has passed a Bill, it must receive the approval of the Monarch (Royal Assent) before it becomes law (an Act of the Northern Ireland Assembly).

Scrutiny

How the Assembly holds Ministers and their departments to account by monitoring and scrutinising their work

Secretary of State

A senior Minister of the UK Government. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is in charge of the Northern Ireland Office and represents Northern Ireland’s interests in the UK Cabinet.

Single Transferable Vote

The proportional voting system used to elect MLAs to the Northern Ireland Assembly. In a multi-member constituency the voters rank candidates in order of preference, with one being their first choice, two their second etc. A candidate is elected once his or her votes reach a set quota (target). The candidate’s votes are then redistributed according to voters’ second preferences. A formula is used to reduce the value of each vote transferred. If there are still unfilled seats, candidates with the least number of votes are eliminated. Their votes are transferred to second preference candidates. The process continues until all five seats are filled. This system allows voters to choose between candidates from the same party, as well as between those from different parties. See Proportional Representation.

Sitting

Another term for a plenary meeting in the Assembly Chamber

Snap election

An election which is called earlier than expected. Following the resignation of Martin McGuinness as deputy First Minister on 9 January 2017 and Sinn Féin’s refusal to re-nominate within a week, the Secretary of State called for an election to take place on 2 March 2017, only 10 months after the May 2016 election. The next election had not been due to take place until May 2021.

Speaker

The Presiding Officer of the Assembly. The Assembly elects the Speaker on a cross-community basis (see cross-community support), to preside over (chair) plenary meetings of the Assembly. The Speaker makes sure that the rules governing how the Assembly operates are followed at all times. The Speaker determines whether Bills are within the legislative competence of the Assembly (deal with devolved matters and comply with human rights and equality legislation). He/she chairs the Business Committee, which schedules plenary business and recommends membership of Committees. He/she also has a role in selecting oral questions and deciding whether to allow Questions for Urgent Oral Answer. The Speaker usually maintains a politically neutral stance and does not vote on any matter in the Assembly Chamber. See Cross-community Support.

Stages

MLAs present a proposal for legislation to the Assembly in the form of a Bill. It must pass through several stages of scrutiny before the Assembly can pass it as an Act and it can become law.

St Andrews Agreement

An agreement, reached on 13 October 2006, between the British and Irish Governments and political parties in Northern Ireland. It led to the establishment of the Transitional Assembly, to prepare for the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which had been suspended since 14 October 2002. After the 7 March 2007 Election, devolved powers were restored on 8 May 2007. See Devolution.

Standing Committees

Permanent committees of the Assembly. There are currently seven Standing Committees. They are mostly concerned with running the Assembly, for example the Business Committee arranges plenary business and the Committee on Procedures reviews Standing Orders. The Audit Committee and the Public Accounts Committee assist the Assembly in scrutinising the spending of Government Departments and their agencies. the Windsor Framework Democratic Scrutiny Committee advises the Assembly on the application of EU law to Northern Ireland, under the Windsor Framework

Standing Orders

The rules, agreed by MLAs, governing how the Assembly operates. The Committee on Procedures is responsible for reviewing Standing Orders.

Statutory Committees

There are currently 9 Statutory Committees. Each Committee has a scrutiny, policy development and consultative role in relation to its corresponding Department. They may initiate legislation. There are 11 MLAs on each Committee. Membership broadly reflects the strength of parties in the Assembly. Chairs and Deputy Chairs are appointed using the d’Hondt system.

Statutory Instruments

See Subordinate Legislation.

Statutory Rules

See Subordinate Legislation.

Stormont House Agreement

Reached on 23 December 2014 to resolve disagreements over welfare reform, flags, parades and dealing with the past. There was also a Stormont House Fresh Start Agreement in November of the following year. 

Subordinate Legislation

The detailed rules and procedures of law a Minister makes under powers deriving from a ‘parent’ Act (Primary Legislation, which outlines the framework of the law). In the Westminster Parliament, these detailed rules are commonly known as Statutory Instruments. In Northern Ireland they are called Statutory Rules. Amending subordinate legislation, for example for annual fee changes or road closure for a period of maintenance, allows the Assembly to make changes in the law quickly and avoids the elaborate procedures involved in Primary Legislation.

Supplementary Question

Additional questions that MLAs ask a Minister at Question Time. They are based on an original, published question. Ministers do not know in advance what the supplementary questions will be. They will be well briefed by departmental officials on the original question so they can answer supplementary questions on any related topic. The supplementary question must relate to the original question.

Suspension

This refers to the suspension of devolution – the removal of transferred/devolved powers from the Northern Ireland Assembly and the restoration of Direct Rule. Since power was devolved to Northern Ireland in 1999, the Assembly has been suspended four times. During suspension the Secretary of State assumes responsibility for directing the Northern Ireland Departments. See Devolution.

The Executive Office (TEO)

See Executive Office.

Topical Questions

Questions to Ministers on topical (current) issues, asked for 15 minutes at the end of the traditional 30 minute Question Time. Ministers are advised 3 days in advance of the names of MLAs asking Questions, but not the questions. Topical questions can be about any constituency or regional matter within the Minister’s area of responsibility. No supplementary questions are allowed during Topical Question Time.

Transferred Matters

Matters that the Northern Ireland Assembly has been given the power, under devolution, to make decisions/laws on. These are also known as devolved matters. See excepted matters and reserved matters.

Transitional Assembly

An interim assembly, established by the St Andrews Agreement Act (2006) to prepare for restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Transitional Assembly first met on 24 November 2006 and ceased to exist on 8 May 2007.

Unofficial Opposition

Comprises parties in the Assembly which do not have enough MLAs to qualify them for membership of the Executive Committee under d’Hondt and independent MLAs.

Veto

The power to stop an action or overturn a decision. In the system of government established by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, one side of the community can prevent a decision or law being made that it does not support. The requirement for cross-community support in certain decisions is, in effect, a veto.

Voting

How the Assembly makes decisions and passes laws. MLAs vote by saying ‘Aye’ or ‘No’. Then, the Speaker decides whether the motion is carried (passed). If the result is unclear, or MLAs challenge the Speaker’s decision, the Speaker may call for a division.

Whips

MLAs in each party who are responsible for keeping party members informed about Assembly business. They also make sure MLAs attend the Chamber, especially when there is a vote. Whips try to ensure that MLAs vote in line with their party’s policies. Most parties appoint a Chief Whip.

Westminster

Short for Westminster Palace, home of the UK Parliament, London.

Windsor Framework

The Windsor Framework is a post-Brexit legal agreement between the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK) which adjusts the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. It introduces a new 'green lane' for goods coming in from the rest of the UK and remaining in Northern Ireland. These goods are not subject to the checks required at Northern Ireland ports on goods travelling across the Irish border into the EU. This allows the smoother flow of trade within the UK.

Windsor Framework Democratic Scrutiny Committee

A committee established to inform the Assembly about the impact of new or replacement EU legislation, which applies to Northern Ireland under the Windsor Framework. The Assembly votes on 'applicability motions' in relation to any new EU laws which would apply under the Framework, and may exercise its right to apply the 'Stormont Brake' on laws which amend or replace existing EU laws. 

Written Questions

Questions to Ministers about the work of their Departments that do not require an oral answer in the Assembly Chamber. MLAs submit questions almost two weeks in advance. Ministers give written replies that are then published weekly in the Written Answers Booklet.