The Northern Ireland assembly, often referred to as Stormont, is the devolved legislature of Northern Ireland. It is a unicameral legislature with 90 members elected by the proportional ‘single transferable vote’ system. The assembly was created in 1998 following the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. It was designed to facilitate power-sharing between unionists – who support Northern Ireland’s continued place in the UK – and nationalists – who favour a united Ireland – by requiring political parties from the two communities to form a coalition.[1]

Regular elections to the Northern Ireland assembly happen every five years. The next election, the assembly’s seventh, will take place on Thursday 5 May 2022.

What powers does the Northern Ireland assembly have?

The assembly’s legislative powers are set out in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and divided into three categories: ‘reserved’, ‘excepted’ and ‘transferred’ matters.[2]

Transferred matters are those that have been fully devolved to the assembly, giving it power to legislate in several areas including health, education, welfare, justice and the environment, among others. Unlike the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, it also has powers over social security, although benefits are directly funded by the UK government on the condition that entitlements remain the same in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the UK.

Reserved matters are those held by the UK parliament, but which can be devolved if the assembly requests this and the UK government agrees. In 2010, powers over policing and justice were devolved, following the Hillsborough Agreement.[3]

Excepted matters are exclusively the responsibility of the UK parliament, and include powers over national security, international relations, immigration and asylum policy and the constitution.[4]

How is the Northern Ireland government funded?

The Northern Ireland executive receives funding through a block grant from the UK central government. The Treasury uses the Barnett formula to determine changes to the block grant that the Northern Ireland executive receives each year to fund devolved services. In 2021, the Treasury announced that the executive would receive an average of £15 billion per year for the next three years.[5]

The executive also receives some revenue through taxes that it controls, although this is minimal. This funding comes from the regional rate, a domestic and non-domestic property tax.[6] In 2015, legislation was also passed to devolve control of corporation tax but the power to cut corporation tax rates in Northern Ireland has not yet been used.

As part of a review into increasing fiscal powers of the Northern Ireland assembly, the Independent Fiscal Commission Northern Ireland has called for income tax to be devolved to Northern Ireland and will publish a report with their conclusions in late 2022.[7]

How do Northern Ireland assembly elections work?

Elections to the Northern Ireland assembly use the single transferable vote (STV) electoral system, a form of proportional representation.

There are 18 constituencies for elections to the Northern Ireland assembly and these are the same as for elections to the UK parliament. Each constituency elects five MLAs, giving a total of 90.

How is government formed after the Northern Ireland assembly elections?

Following an election, the assembly meets within eight days. On the first day, MLAs are required to designate themselves as ‘unionist’, ‘nationalist’ or ‘other’. The largest party is entitled to nominate a first minister and the largest party from the second-largest a deputy first minister (unless the largest party is not from the largest designation, for more detail see this explainer). The two positions have equal powers and one cannot hold office without the other being in post.

The parties then have up to 24 weeks (an initial six-week period which can be extended three times) to nominate a first minister and deputy first minister.

If a first and deputy first minister are appointed within the 24-week period, other ministerial positions are then allocated using a special formula (d’Hondt) to determine the number of positions each party is entitled to, and the order in which they can make their nominations. Parties can choose whether to take up these positions or to join the official opposition, as the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) did in 2016, in which case their entitlements are reallocated. The exception is the justice minister who is appointed by a cross-community consent vote.

If no first minister or deputy first minister are appointed within those 24 weeks, all ministers cease to hold office and the secretary of state for Northern Ireland is obliged to call another election.

Which parties were represented in the most recent Northern Ireland assembly?

There were eight political parties represented in the assembly prior to its pre-election dissolution, as well as four independents (three arising as a result of party resignations of expulsions throughout the assembly’s term). In 2017, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin were the largest parties winning 28 seats and 27 seats respectively. The SDLP won 12 seats, UUP 10 seats and cross-community Alliance Party seven seats.

Three smaller parties were also represented, the Green Party had two seats; the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and People Before Profit (PBP) had three seats each.

Of the parties represented in the assembly, three designated as unionist (DUP, UUP, TUV) alongside the three independent unionists, two as nationalist (Sinn Féin, SDLP) and four designated as ‘other’ (Alliance, Green, PBP and the Independent MLA).

Which parties are represented in the Northern Ireland executive?

Following the 2017 election, the DUP was entitled to nominate a first minister and Sinn Féin the deputy first minister. However, poor relations between the political parties, lingering from the executive’s collapse earlier that year, meant neither party made a nomination and Northern Ireland was left without ministers or a government.

Following a multi-party agreement in January 2020, the parties agreed to form a five-party executive that alongside the first minister and deputy first minister comprised of three DUP ministers, three Sinn Féin ministers, one SDLP minister, one UUP minister and a justice minister from the Alliance Party.

In February 2020, the first minister, Paul Givan, resigned, triggering the automatic resignation of the deputy first minister. The other ministers in the executive remain in position and will continue to do so for up to 24 weeks after the election, or until a new executive is formed.

What has happened at previous Northern Ireland assembly elections?

A total of six elections to the Northern Ireland assembly have taken place (1998, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2016, 2017). Until 2017, 108 MLAs were elected at assembly elections which is reflected in the drop in seats of some major parties in 2017, when the reduced number of 90 MLAs were elected for the first time.

Following the first assembly elections in 1998, the UUP was the largest party, however its number of seats has decreased over time. Similarly, the SDLP won the second-highest number of seats in 1998, but its support has similarly fallen. In contrast, the DUP and Sinn Féin have generally increased their number of seats over time and have been the two largest parties ever since the 2007 election.

Figure 1: Number of seats won by parties in Northern Ireland assembly elections

Turnout at Northern Ireland assembly elections decreased between 1998 and 2016, before increasing sharply from 54% at the 2016 election to 65% at the 2017 election.     

Figure 2: Turnout in UK and devolved elections, 1992-2021

 


  1. Northern Ireland Assembly, ‘History of the Assembly’, Northern Ireland Assembly, no date given, retrieved 15 March 2022, www.niassembly.gov.uk/about-the-assembly/history-of-the-assembly
  2. Torrance D, ‘Devolution in Northern Ireland, 1998-2020’, House of Commons Library, Briefing Paper, CBP 8439, 4 February 2020, https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-8439/CBP-8439.pdf
  3. Northern Ireland Assembly, ‘The power to make laws’, Northern Ireland Assembly, no date given, retrieved 31 March 2022, https://education.niassembly.gov.uk/post_16/the_work_of_the_assembly/making_legislation/power
  4. Torrance D, ‘Devolution in Northern Ireland, 1998-2020’, House of Commons Library, Briefing Paper, CBP 8439, 4 February 2020, https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-8439/CBP-8439.pdf
  5. HM Treasury, ‘Latest figures detail UK Government’s record funding of £15 billion a year for the Northern Ireland Executive’, press release, HM Treasury, 15 December 2021, retrieved 25 March 2022, www.gov.uk/government/news/latest-figures-detail-uk-governments-record-funding-of-15-billion-a-year-for-the-northern-ireland-exe…
  6. Scholes M, ‘What are rates and why do we pay them?’, Northern Ireland Assembly Research and Information Service, 22 March 2018, retrieved 25 March 2022, www.assemblyresearchmatters.org/2018/03/22/what-are-rates-and-why-do-we-pay-them
  7. Campbell J, ‘Income tax: Call to devolve powers to Northern Ireland’, BBC, 23 March 2022, retrieved 25 March 2022, www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-60833904

 

Update date: 
Monday, April 25, 2022

Original source – The Institute for Government

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