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Guide to the Northern Ireland Assembly

Stormont Parliament Buildings
The Stormont estate overlooks the city

Purchased in 1921, the Stormont estate was chosen to house the newly elected Northern Ireland Parliament not because of its name, but because of its commanding views across the city of Belfast.

However, the new Parliament would indeed become a "mount of storms".

It was Lloyd George's answer to the dogged question of Irish Home Rule, and its establishment split opinion in both England and Ireland.

The unionist majority government moved to secure the new state against the challenges of the Irish Civil War and a dissatisfied nationalist minority.

Northern Ireland Prime Minister James Craig's efforts at stabilising his government, by altering electoral boundaries in 1929, were intended to strengthen a two-party oppositional democracy by avoiding an anti-unionist coalition.

However, the move marked the entrenchment of a difficult relationship which would come increasingly to define and divide the new state.

A lack of co-operation marked the Stormont Parliament in its initial incarnation. In half a century of unionist rule, the Nationalist Party got one piece of legislation passed - the Wild Birds Act.

Captain Terence O'Neill, 1969
Captain Terence O'Neill hoped to found a "new Ulster"

By the 1950s, nationalists had splintered, giving the IRA an opportunity to reform and capitalise on low morale in rural Catholic communities - leading to the 1956-62 border campaign .

In the same year that saw the end of a six-year bombing campaign, the unionist government welcomed a progressive leader in the shape of Captain Terence O'Neill.

Stormont rule breaks down

O'Neill's aspirations to found a "new Ulster" were doomed to become caught between the twin forces of a growing nationalist civil rights movement and a resurgence of fringe loyalism, led by the Reverend Ian Paisley.

By the end of the 1960s, the troubled unionist government made repeated unsuccessful attempts to paper over the fractures in social structure.

Civic unrest burgeoned as the civil rights movement continued to organise public marches.

The Reverend Ian Paisley
Ian Paisley delivering a petition to Stormont in 1969

The discontent between diverging sections of society catalysed when a civil rights march in Derry ended with the shooting dead of 13 unarmed civilians by the British Army, on 30 January 1972 .

The IRA campaign, spawned from the consequent street violence, would continue into the 1990s.

Faced with the prospect of civil war, the Conservative government in Westminster suspended the Northern Ireland Parliament and direct rule was imposed.

Following a referendum on the Northern Ireland constitution on both sides of the border, a 76-member parliament was elected.

It was to be short-lived - the Ulster Workers' Council Strike railed against the Sunningdale Agreement terms of power-sharing in the form of the Council of Ireland and a North/South Commission.

The collapse of the executive led again to direct rule and the next attempt at devolution came with the l1982 Prior Assembly which, without nationalist support, came to a halt four years later.

The 1999 NI Executive
Power-sharing was suspended in February 2000

The new Northern Ireland Assembly was formed in 1998 following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement .

The resulting Northern Ireland Act 1998 provided for a power-sharing executive which was nominated on 29 November 1999, but was suspended by Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson in February 2000 over the IRA's failure to decommission its weapons.

The issue of decommissioning led to further suspensions of devolution up until October 2002 when allegations of an IRA spy-ring at Stormont led to the Assembly being put into cold storage until 2006.

The British and Irish Governments unveiled a blueprint for restoring devolution on the back of the IRA's announcement that all of its weapons had been put beyond use, and in May 2006 MLAs once again took their seats at Stormont.

Devolution day at Stormont
Hope was expressed for the future on Devolution Day

The St Andrews Agreement

led to a transitional Assembly sitting in November and following an Assembly election in March 2007 the DUP agreed to share power with Sinn Féin.

On 7 May 2007, direct rule over Northern Ireland by Westminster officially ended and DUP leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness were sworn in as First and Deputy First Ministers.

In the Great Hall at Stormont, the new First Minister Ian Paisley said: "I believe Northern Ireland has come to a time of peace, a time when hate will no longer rule. How good it will be to be part of a wonderful healing in this province."

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