Page last updated at 16:59 GMT, Wednesday, 28 October 2009
Guide to the Northern Ireland Assembly



The Northern Ireland Assembly is not unlike the other devolved UK institutions in terms of its powers.

The debating chamber has all the trappings of the House of Commons - wood panelling and opposing benches - but lacks the bear-pit atmosphere.

First Minister's Questions is less a clash of the Titans and more a report by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) on how it is getting on with its homework.

In the Assembly's case, the blue benches across the chamber are not so much for the opposition, but for partners in the power-sharing government.

Across the Great Hall at Stormont, the red leather of the Lords is replicated in the Senate Chamber, where committees sit and ministers, their departments and prospective laws are scrutinised.

Stormont - Carson's statue
The balance of power has shifted between Belfast and London

In addition to statutory committees (those which deal with specific departments), there are also standing committees which examine MLA standards and privileges, public accounts and the business and procedures of the Assembly.

A number of ad hoc committees are established periodically to address time-limited issues.

Power play

Powers were devolved from Westminster to the Assembly and executive under the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

Since then, those powers have been batted back and forth between Belfast and London.

The Assembly has been suspended, then re-instated, and power put back under direct Westminster rule on several occasions.

While the Assembly was suspended, ministers in the Northern Ireland Office effectively kept a watching brief from Westminster and Stormont Castle.

'No governance'

With the restoration of devolution, the Assembly has the power to enact primary legislation for Northern Ireland and can legislate in areas such as health, education, the environment, agriculture, and employment.

Primary legislation is brought about by way of a bill, setting out a proposed law, and can be brought forward by a minister, committee or individual MLA.

The executive is responsible for coming up with a Programme for Government , setting out its aims and objectives, and a budget to allocate money to finance them.

Executive ministers are responsible for building roads, deciding on prescription charges, cost of transport, water charges, or if a school will be one of those in line for a facelift.

As with the other devolved institutions, there are areas - known as reserved matters - over which the Assembly has no powers to legislate, including defence, foreign policy and national security.

So while the Department of Environment's planning service can rule over planning permission for MI5's new UK headquarters near Belfast, the Northern Ireland Executive has no governance over what goes on there.

And while the Assembly Speaker hosts dignitaries from all over the world, the executive cannot make sovereign treaties with their respective states.




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