The Northern Ireland Assembly
The present version of the Assembly came into operation in May 2007. It followed an agreement between the British and Irish governments and Northern Ireland’s political parties in relation to the devolution of power. It also said that Sinn Fein had to support the Northern Ireland police force, courts and rule of law. The agreement was known as the St Andrew’s Agreement.
Prior to the St Andrews Agreement, the First Minster of Northern Ireland following on from the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was David Trimble. He was the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (ULP) and held the post from 1998-2002.
From 2002 until 2007, the Assembly was suspended and Northern Ireland returned to a period of direct rule from Westminster. In 2007, the Assembly was re-established under the St Andrews Agreement. You can read more about this Agreement here:
David Trimble was succeeded by Ian Paisley as First Minister from 2007-2008. Following on from the St Andrews Agreement, he agreed to share power with Martin McGuinness of the Sinn Fein party. McGuinness served as Deputy First Minster.
After a short period in office, Paisley stepped down in 2008 and retired from politics entirely in 2011. His position as First Minister was taken over by Peter Robinson, who remained in office from 2008-2016. Robinson continued to cooperate with Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister. When Robinson retired in January 2016, Arlene Foster took over his post.
Describe the Assembly
The Assembly originally had 108 members: 6 from each of the 18 Northern Ireland constituencies. This has now been reduced and the new Assembly has 90 members; a measure that has been adopted to reduce costs. As such, the number from each constituency has fallen from 6 to 5. These members are elected by a system of proportional representation known as the Single Transferable Vote. (Roger Darlington, source cited below).
The Assembly meets in the Parliament Building in Belfast. It has devolved legislative powers over matters not reserved to the UK Parliament and no tax-raising powers.
A First Minister is elected to lead the Executive Committee of Ministers and is chosen from the party with the largest number of seats. Following on from the grievous sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland, the St Andrews Agreement highlighted the importance of cross-community support. It is stipulated therein that a consensus needs to be reached from all sides within the executive and so a Deputy First Minster is selected from the second largest party; in this case, Sinn Fein. Germany is similar in this regard. Whilst Angela Merkel, being from the largest party (the CDU), has been elected as Chancellor; she in turn elects a Vice Chancellor from the second largest party, in this case, the SPD. Until recently the Vice Chancellor post was held by Sigmar Gabriel but this has now been taken over by Martin Schulz. One notable difference in Germany is that this power sharing is not constitutional, nor is it a legal requirement; instead it is ‘the outcome of political negotiation between the parties’. My friend and mentor, Mr Roger Darlington, made this comment when I showed this article to him. In Northern Ireland, it is a legal requirement. A point worth noting.
Northern Ireland’s Assembly has been designed in such a way that the parties have to work together. It is known as a mandatory coalition. Whilst it does encourage both sides of the coalition to cooperate, it can also make the decision making process take longer.
How do they choose the leader?
The leader of the largest party in the Assembly has the right to become Northern Ireland’s First Minister. For some 20 years, the Unionists have been the largest party and as such, have held the post of First Minister. The First Minister since that agreement was a member of the UUP, another unionist group: David Trimble. Following on from that, the position has been held by a member of the DUP: first Paisley, then Robinson and now Foster, as stipulated above.
What happens after the votes have been counted?
Once the votes have been counted, the two largest parties have three weeks (as specified in Northern Ireland’s devolved political settlement), in which to get together and form an Assembly. In the present day scenario, should this fail to transpire for any reason, Westminster could choose to call another election. Alternatively, Northern Ireland could return to direct rule from Westminster, which is what happened between 2002-2007; hence the St Andrews Agreement. (During this period, the nationalists and the unionists disagreed on matters of policing).
The Assembly elections of March 2017
Under the rules of power sharing, the most recent devolved government assembly collapsed because Sinn Fein leader for Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, resigned. This happened in January 2017. McGuinness resigned because the leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, refused to step down while investigations were carried out into her negligence in relation to the Green Energy scheme she promoted that has cost, and will continue to cost, the people of Northern Ireland an absolute fortune; or around ‘£500 million’ to be precise, as a friend of mine has pointed out only yesterday. As such, the devolved assembly no longer represented both sides of the community in Northern Ireland and this contravened the stipulations that were contained within the St Andrews Agreement, thereby necessitating the need to call another election.
And since the election results have come out?
Mrs Foster of the DUP and Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Fein’s present leader in Northern Ireland, have both said that they want to see ‘the restoration of the devolved executive in the next few weeks’ (FT, 4.3.17). To be precise, they have three.
Sinn Fein has a much stronger negotiating hand than it has had previously. Bearing in mind that the two are notoriously different, this could be quite difficult. Also, Sinn Fein have not been quiet about their desire that the DUP put forward an alternative candidate for First Minister but the DUP have no intention of doing so. Mrs Foster continues to have party backing and has refused to stand down. They may or may not manage to come to some sort of deal but that remains to be seen. Compromises will have to be reached and that takes time. Furthermore, whilst the DUP are still the biggest single party, they no longer have a dominant position in the Assembly as the other unionist parties have suffered; hence Mike Nesbitt’s resignation (see more on this below). For the first tim win a long time, it is the nationalists who have the majority. The nationalists were anti Brexit and they also favour the notion of a unified Ireland.
Should Sinn Fein beat the DUP at the next elections, it could as Gary Kent (see below) points out, ‘drive a new dynamic to unite Ireland in the EU’.
So what are the different political parties in Northern Ireland?
Northern Ireland politics does not really have a left to right spectrum. It mainly revolves more around the unionists and the nationalists, although there is a slight lean with unionists adopting a more right wing stance traditionally and nationalists one that is more to the left. The unionists favour Northern Ireland’s union with the UK and the nationalists do not. Unionists tend to be protestant; nationalists tend to be catholic. The nationalists would prefer a unified Ireland, as I have mentioned above.
Democratic Unionist party
Founded 1971. Present Leader: Arlene Foster. Bit of a scandal around her over the botched green energy scheme that she introduced in a previous executive. Questions over whether she will stay on as party leader but she has refused to stand down. The DUP were in favour of leaving the EU in the referendum. They are the main voice of Ulster Unionism. Peter Robinson was the former DUP leader. He retired from politics in 2016. DUP historically opposed to abortion.
The Irish Republican/nationalist party. It was founded, in its current form, in 1970 but they have been around since 1905.
Sinn Fein backed staying in the EU in the referendum.
The Sinn Fein leader in Northern Ireland is Michelle O’Neill who took over from Martin McGuinness in January when he walked out in protest at ms Foster’s refusal to step down whilst an investigation was conducted. According to the Guardian, (6.3.17), McGuinness is now seriously ill in hospital with a condition that attacks the heart and other organs. He is 66. McGuinness was Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator during the peace process.
The Sinn Fein president for the Irish Republic is Gerry Adams. He has been leader since 1983. Mr Adams is a ‘political foe’ of the Northern Ireland unionists because of his IRA links (FT, 1.3.17). Adams is a member of the Irish Parliament in Dublin, though he was a UK MP and member of the Northern Ireland National assembly before that.
Sinn Fein support abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. They also support an Irish Language Act which would put Gaelic on the same par as English. The DUP are against this.
Social Democratic and Labour party. Founded 1970. Centrist and nationalist. Leader: Colum Eastwood. He has said that the ‘very idea of power sharing in the north is at risk’ (FT, 1.3.17). Traditionally also pro life and not in favour of abortion.
The UUP used to be the biggest party in Northern Ireland until the DUP tok over. Founded in 1905. Their leader Mike Nesbitt has just resigned after ‘his party failed to make any headway wth the voters’ (FT, 4.3.17).
Founded 1970. Cross party so stands for cooperation between nationalist and unionist parties. Leader: Naomi Long. This party not so strict on abortion.
Founded 1990. Supports introduction of abortion on demand.
Traditional Unionist Voice:
Founded 2007. Hardline traditionalist and the third biggest unionist party in Northern Ireland, after the DUP (now the biggest) and the Ulster Unionists. It’s founder and leader split from the DUP because they went into a power sharing government which included Sinn Fein (BBC). Opposed to abortion.
People before Profit:
Founded 2005. Left wing. Supports abortion on demand. There is no one specific leader. They operate on the basis of a collective leadership.
At the moment, the DUP and Sinn Fein are the two biggest but unlikely the two would be able to put together a coalition as the differences between the two are so great. It is possible but may not happen were Arlene Foster to remain the Democratic Unionist party leader.
The rest of Ireland, i.e. the South?
The Republic of Ireland is a sovereign state and is not part of the United Kingdom. They are part of the EU and the euro whilst their northern compatriots are not.
I hope that has helped to clarify the political system in Northern Ireland a little. If you want some more informed reading, I suggest you look at the following blog that is written by a friend of mine, Gary Kent.
The Guardian, 6.3.17, Martin McGuinness seriously sick in hospital:
A bit of history on the Good Friday Agreement:
BBC Newsbeat article, April 2015. Old but still a good explainer on the politics of Northern Ireland:
Notes on the make up of the Northern Ireland Assembly taken from:
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