The Northern Ireland Assembly was established as part of the Belfast Agreement, the so-called "Good Friday Agreement" signed in 1998 by the UK government, the government of the Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland's major and minor political parties. It is intended to take over the powers exercised by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), a department of the UK Government, based in Belfast. These powers are finance and personnel, agriculture, education, health and social services, economic development and the environment. (The plan to devolve Policing took a different form). Despite overwhelming support from the public on both sides of the border, the implementation of this part of the agreement has proved problematic.

Although the Good Friday Agreement is the ultimate product of all-party talks dating back as least as far as the original IRA ceasefire in 1994, the Northern Ireland Assembly is also in-line with Tony Blair's "unfinished business" of UK devolution. It stands beside the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Greater London Authority under the Westminster Parliament.

Make Up and Operation

The Assembly is defined by Strand One of the agreement. It has 108 members (called Members of the Legislative Assembly or MLAs), directly elected by proportional representation, and having full executive and legislative authority over most matters previously with the NIO. The normal mechanisms of parliamentary democracy are established; committees, ministers of departments, a debating chamber, and the like. But unlike in the Westminster System used in the UK and Irish houses, the committee members, chairs and ministers are selected according to the relative strengths of all the political parties. The Westminster tradition sees ministers appointed by the Prime Minister, who naturally chooses from his own party or their political allies. In the Assembly all parties with more than a handful of seats are represented in the executive.

A further guarantee that no single party or alliance can dominate lies in the qualified majorities required to enact certain types of legislation or make key decisions. A "parallel consent" can be used, meaning that a simple majority of members is required, including a majority of both unionists and nationalist members. The only alternative is a weighted majority, in which a 60% overall majority is required and at least 40% of both unionists and nationalist members. Decisions requiring these methods are designated in advance; or can be subsequently flagged as such by 30 or more members. Together, these majorities are called "cross-community"; decisions so approved are said to have been taken on a "cross-community basis". The assembly and all its acts and decisions are permanently circumscribed by the European Convention on Human Rights.

Operation of the assembly therefore requires that every member declares whether they are a nationalist¹, or a unionist². To my mind, this requirement enshrines Northern Ireland's past political difficulties right into the heart of the new body- but what do I know? Members also swear a Pledge of Office, including a commitment to non-violence, to promote equality, and to follow the rules and framing principles of the body. Uniquely, this does not require allegiance to the British sovereign; a concession which allows Sinn Fein participation. (That party has won several seats at Westminster, but do not take them up because they refuse the oath of office). Members of the British House of Lords or House of Commons are not excluded from taking seats in the Assembly.

An executive committee (the Northern Ireland Executive) is headed by a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, appointed on the cross-community basis. A minister for each department is then selected according to a modified d'Hondt formula; basically, the party with the most members picks a ministerial post which "uses up" some of their political strength. The next strongest party picks the next available post, and so on. The resulting executive committee proposes legislation, prioritises proposals, and agrees on issues where ministers have overlapping responsibilities or where a common position is required, perhaps for dealings with the outside world.

The UK government at Westminster retains the power to legislate for many matters; and Northern Ireland's position within the United Kingdom remains enshrined in the Agreement. Like the other devolved bodies, the Assembly is required to ensure co-ordination and avoid disputes with Westminster.

The First Meeting

The Assembly first met on the 29th November, 1999 at Parliament Buildings, Stormont. The first order of business was the appointment of the Speaker, First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and all the other Ministers of the executive. The first Speaker (or Presiding Officer) was Lord Alderdice of the Alliance Party. Amongst much bickering, grandstanding, and a walkout by one of the minor (now defunct) unionist parties, the members appointed (under d'Hondt) were:

 

As you can see, four political parties dominate; the moderate UUP and harder-line DUP share power with their political adversaries in the nationalist SDLP and Sinn Fein. The system requires them to do this, even though in a normal parliament the unionist parties could dominate without involving any other groups. A few days later the UK government (in the form of Peter Mandelson) gave up many of its powers to the Assembly.

History (to March 2007)

2000 - Sinn Fein; friends in very low places?

The course has not run smoothly since that day. Its operation was dependant on the IRA verifiably beginning to decommission its arms. The Good Friday Agreement required all such groups to disarm; by February 2000, there was no sign of any decommissioning. This would have lead to the uncomfortable situation of Sinn Fein members sitting in government while their paramilitary grouping remained fully armed, if observing a ceasefire. Therefore Peter Mandelson was required to suspend the Assembly and powers reverted to the NIO.

In May the IRA announced that they would begin to put their arms "beyond use", and on the 29th, the Assembly was re-instated. The IRA's first steps were verified by an international panel in June.

2001 - IRA decommissioning still a sticking point

By July 2001, no further steps had been taken by the IRA, and the First Minister resigned his post, appointing a caretaker. With no concrete steps forthcoming from the IRA by August, the new NIO Secretary, John Reid, again suspended the Assembly as a warning, for a 24 hour period. Despite an improved relationship developing between the IRA and the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, no practical measures had been taken by September. John Reid again suspended the Assembly for a short period.

2002-2005 - Trimble under pressure; spy-ring allegations and suspension of assembly; IRA calls it a day

This one seems to have done the trick, and the IRA verifiably disposed of another chunk of its arsenal. But David Trimble had lost the support of his own Ulster Unionist Party; the arithmetic of the cross-community voting system required 2 nationalist Alliance Party members to re-designate themselves as unionists in order to re-elect him as First Minister.

The current suspension of the Assembly began on the 14th October 2002, following a Police raid on Sinn Fein offices in Belfast. Some party members were said to have been spying on MLAs at Stormont. Further IRA activities including a murder of the dissident republican and the Northern Bank Robbery have counted against their later statement that their armed struggle had been abandoned as of 28th July 2005.

2005-2006 - New elections, a "transitional" assembly, a dramatic conclusion

In the May 2005 general election, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party leapfrogged the two moderate nationalist and unionist parties. Restoration of devolution would now hinge on the ability of Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams to work together since reapplication of the d'Hondt system would see them appointed as the First Minister and his Deputy. The UK government instituted a 24 November 2006 deadline to reactivate the Northern Ireland Assembly in a new "transitional" role which would pave the way for elections in March 2007. The Independent Monitoring Commission's report for the 6 month period ending August 2006 said that IRA decommissioning has continued apace, that their military structures have been disbanded, and that their activities, including punishment attacks, have now ceased.

In the 24th November session of the transitional assembly, Iain Paisley made some ambiguous statements, which he later clarified as meaning that he would accept a nomination as First Minister if and only if a deal could be struck on policing. For their part, Sinn Fein nominated Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister. That's about as far as they got, because the security guards evacuated the building soon after. Loyalist paramilitary Michael Stone had single-handedly stormed the entrance armed with handguns, knives and several bombs. Stone had been freed from prison under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. He was swiftly disarmed, and no-one was hurt³.

Current Situation (March 2007 into permanent peace and prosperity)

The early months of 2007 saw a frenzy of activity amongst the Northern Irish political parties. The March election saw Sinn Fein and the DUP come out on top once again. Later in March, Sinn Fein and the DUP met and agreed a deal under which the nationalist group would support the police; a condition seen as the final obstacle to the establishment of a permanent assembly. The Northern Ireland Assembly met in full force on the 8th of May, 2007. Under d'Hondt, Iain Paisley was duly appointed First Minister, and Marin McGuinnes was made his deputy. The occasion was marked in the press with a series of startling images of the two bitter enemies settling down to work together; McGuinness grinning from ear-to-ear, and Paisley openly guffawing.

The Assembly now meets regularly, every Monday and Tuesday, exercising the full powers envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement.


¹ - An Irish nationalist is one who regards Ireland as a single nation and looks forward to it being governed as such. Hardliners or those with a terrorist background are usually called "republicans" instead.

² - An Ulster unionist is one who regards Northern Ireland as being a different entity, best governed as part of the UK. Hardliners or those with a terrorist background are usually called "loyalists" instead.

³ - At his trial, he claimed that his actions were a piece of performance art aimed at illustrating the importance of political stability. The authorities have already determined that he has breached the terms of his original early release, so he's back in the slammer for earlier murders whatever is decided about this case.


Sources:

  • Good Friday Agreement : Strand One
  • Timeline, Northern Ireland Assembly, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/2952997.stm
  • The Northern Ireland Assembly, http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/
  • Powers of the Northern Ireland Assembly, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/91134.stm
  • http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/542337.stm
  • Ulster takes leap of faith, http://www.guardian.co.uk/Northern_Ireland/Story/0,2763,194561,00.html
  • Database of members and debates from December 2006 on: http://www.theyworkforyou.com/ni/
  • Grinning and Guffawing - http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/content.asp?id=38641

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