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BBC News Front Page | World | In depth | Northern Ireland

The search for peace
The Executive
November, 1999
Profiles Themes
• David Trimble
• Seamus Mallon
• Martin McGuinness
• Powersharing

Direct Rule
• Mitchell Review
• Anglo Irish Agreement

• UUP
• SDLP
• DUP
• Sinn Fein


Events Parties and paramilitaries
Piece together the puzzle of the Northern Ireland conflict by clicking the related subjects above.
Direct Rule

The Northern Ireland executive is the backbone of the aspects of the Good Friday Agreement dealing with democratic devolution.

More than 60 British ministers drawn from the House of Commons and the Lords had worked in Northern Ireland during three decades of conflict - the average tenure being little more than two years, all of them either being Conservative of Labour members.

The executive aimed to change that, by giving locally elected politicians, accountable to an assembly, the responsibility of running Northern Irelandís daily affairs.

The executive comprises a First Minister, Deputy First Minister and 10 further ministers who run the government departments previously handled by the Northern Ireland Office during direct rule.

David Trimble of the Ulster Unionists and Seamus Mallon of the SDLP became the first holders of the two top posts respectively.

The executive is completely different to any other form of devolved government in the UK, relying entirely on a system of power-sharing and joint-decision making among the different groups.

In essence, decision-making becomes deadlocked unless there is consensus among the two largest groups (following the 1998 elections these were the UUP and SDLP) to avoid deadlock.

In this way, the system prevents one communityís wishes from overriding those of the other, theoretically ensuring that Northern Ireland is run for the benefit of all.

The assembly is similar to that of the failed Sunningdale Agreement of 1973-74 - but its complicated voting system is weighted more towards ensuring vastly more proportional cross-community representation at the highest level of government.

In the first executive, the parties gained the following number of ministers:

  • UUP: Three ministers - enterprise, environment and culture
  • SDLP: Three ministers - finance, higher education and agriculture
  • DUP: Two ministers - regional development and social affairs
  • Sinn Fein: Two ministers - education and health

    The assembly got off to a controversial start. The first attempt to establish an executive in July 1999 failed when the Ulster Unionists refused to take part because of a lack of republican movement on decommissioning.

    The assembly was finally established in November that year, following a historic statement from the IRA that it would engage with the international decommissioning body.

    But anti-agreement Democratic Unionists focused their attacks on the new Sinn Fein education minister Martin McGuinness, someone they still regarded as a high-ranking member of the IRA.

    The DUP then went further, deciding to take its two allotted posts to prevent them falling to pro-agreement parties but pledging to constantly rotate them among its own members to disrupt the flow of government.

    Within months, the Northern Ireland secretary suspended the executive to prevent David Trimble resigning over a lack of progress on decommissioning.

    The executive returned to power in May 2000 after another deal among the parties that also led to the IRA opening some of its arms dumps to international inspectors.

    While many unionists have had deep reservations about the nature of a political agreement which allows a party linked to paramilitaries into government, opinion polls suggest that the assembly and the workings of the executive are among the aspects of the agreement that they most value.


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