Northern Ireland Executive

Northern Ireland Executive
Northern Ireland Executive
Northern Ireland Executive.gif
Logo of the Northern Ireland Executive
Government overview
Formed 2 December 1999
Jurisdiction Northern Ireland
Headquarters Stormont Castle, Stormont Estate, Belfast, Northern Ireland
Minister responsible Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, First Minister and deputy First Minister (acting jointly)
Northern Ireland

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Northern Ireland

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The Northern Ireland Executive is the executive arm of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the devolved legislature for Northern Ireland. It is answerable to the Assembly and was established according to the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which followed the Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement). The Executive is referred to in the legislation as the Executive Committee of the Assembly and is an example of a consociationalist government.

The Executive consists of a First Minister and deputy First Minister (a diarchy) and various ministers with individual portfolios and remits. The main Assembly parties appoint most ministers in the Executive, except for the Minister of Justice who is elected by a cross-community vote. It is one of three devolved governments in the United Kingdom, the others being the Scottish Government and the Welsh Government.




In contrast with Westminster system cabinets, which generally need only be backed by a majority of legislators, ministerial positions in the Northern Ireland Executive are allocated to parties with significant representation in the Assembly. With the exception of justice, the number of ministries to which each party is entitled is determined by the D'Hondt system.

In effect, major parties cannot be excluded from participation in government and power-sharing is enforced by the system. The form of government is therefore known as mandatory coalition as opposed to voluntary coalition where parties negotiate an agreement to share power. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland and some Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) members favour a move towards voluntary coalition in the longer term but this is currently opposed by Sinn Féin.

The Executive can not function if either of the two largest parties refuse to take part, as these parties are allocated the First Minister and deputy First Minister positions. However, other parties are not required to enter the Executive even if they are entitled to do so; instead, they can choose to go into opposition if they wish. There were some calls for the SDLP and the UUP to enter opposition after the 2007 Assembly elections,[2] but ultimately the two parties chose to take the seats in the Executive to which they were entitled.

In 2010, an exception to the D'Hondt system for allocating the number of ministerial portfolios was made under the Hillsborough Castle Agreement to allow the cross-community Alliance Party of Northern Ireland to hold the politically-contentious policing and justice brief when most of those powers were devolved to the Assembly. Devolution took place on 12 April 2010.

Under D'Hondt, the SDLP would have been entitled to the extra ministerial seat on the revised Executive created by the devolution of policing and justice. Accordingly both the UUP and SDLP protested that Alliance was not entitled, under the rules of the Good Friday Agreement, to fill the portfolio and refused to support this move. However, Alliance leader David Ford was elected Minister with the support of the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin.


The Executive is co-chaired by the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Its official functions are:

  • acting as a forum for the discussion of, and agreement on, issues which cut across the responsibilities of two or more ministers;
  • prioritising executive and legislative proposals;
  • discussing and agreeing upon significant or controversial matters; and
  • recommending a common position where necessary (e.g. in dealing with external relationships).[3]

Executive meetings are normally held fortnightly, compared to weekly meetings of the British Cabinet and Irish Government. Under the Executive's Ministerial Code, ministers are obliged to: [4]

The Ministerial Code allows any 3 ministers to request a cross-community vote. The quorum for voting is 7 ministers. At present, the Executive consists of 6 unionist, 5 nationalist and 2 other (Alliance Party) ministers.

The current system of devolution has succeeded long periods of direct rule (1974-1999 and 2002-2007), when the Northern Ireland Civil Service had a considerable influence on government policy. The legislation which established new departments in 1999 affirmed that "the functions of a department shall at all times be exercised subject to the direction and control of the Minister". [5] Ministerial powers can be conferred by an Act of the Assembly [6] and ministers can also exercise executive powers which are vested in the Crown.[7]

Ministers are also subject to several limitations, including the European Convention on Human Rights, European Union law, other international obligations of the UK,[8]a requirement not to discriminate on religious or political grounds,[9] and having no power over reserved and excepted matters (which are held by the United Kingdom Government).[10]

Ministerial decisions can be challenged by a petition of 30 Northern Ireland Assembly members. This action can be taken for alleged breaches of the Ministerial Code and on matters of public imporance. The Speaker of the Assembly must consult political party leaders in the Assembly (who are often also ministers) before deciding whether the subject is a matter of public importance. Successful petitions will then be considered by the Executive.[11]

The number of ministers and their responsibilities can be changed when a department is being established or dissolved. The proposal must be made by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister and be carried by a cross-community vote in the Assembly. The number of departments was initially limited to 10 but this increased to 11 upon the devolution of justice. [12]

Ministers are disqualified from holding office if appointed to the Government of Ireland or as the chairman or deputy chairman of an Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) committee. [13]


The Good Friday Agreement states that the Executive will "seek to agree each year, and review as necessary" a Programme for Government incorporating an agreed budget.[14]

The following programmes for government have been published to date:

The 2011-2015 Executive was appointed in May 2011 but had not published a Programme for Government as of November 2011.

The following budgets have been published to date:

Under the St Andrews Agreement, the Executive is obliged to adopt strategies on the following policy matters:

  • enhancing and protecting the development of the Irish language;
  • enhancing and developing Ulster Scots language, heritage and culture; and
  • tackling poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation based on objective need. [15] [16]

The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister published a child poverty strategy in March 2011.[17]. The wider anti-poverty strategy was carried over from direct rule in November 2006.[18] As of November 2011, neither an Irish language strategy nor an Ulster Scots strategy had been adopted. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure states that a Strategy for Indigenous or Regional Minority Languages "will be presented to the Executive in due course". [19]



The original Northern Ireland Executive was established on 1 January 1974, following the Sunningdale Agreement, but collapsed on 28 May 1974 due to the Ulster Workers' Council strike. It comprised three parties:

The Troubles continued in the absence of a political settlement.


The current Executive was provided for in the Belfast Agreement, signed on 10 April 1998. Designates for First Minister and Deputy First Minister were appointed on 1 July 1998. [20] A full Executive was nominated on 29 November 1999 and took office on 2 December 1999, comprising the following parties, in order of size:[21]

Devolution was suspended for four periods, during which the departments came under the responsibility of direct rule ministers from the Northern Ireland Office:

The 2002-2007 suspension followed the refusal of the Ulster Unionist Party to share power with Sinn Féin after a high-profile Police Service of Northern Ireland investigation into an alleged Provisional Irish Republican Army spy ring.[30]


Since 8 May 2007, devolution has operated without interruption. The second Executive formed in 2007 initially consisted of the following parties in order:[31]

However, the Executive did not meet between 19 June 2008 and 20 November 2008 due to a boycott by Sinn Féin. This took place during a dispute between the DUP and Sinn Féin over the devolution of policing and justice powers. [32] Policing and justice powers were devolved on 12 April 2010, with the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland holding the position of Minister of Justice in the Executive from that date.[33]

2011 onwards

Following the Northern Ireland Assembly election held on 5 May 2011, a third Executive was formed on 16 May 2011 with the following parties represented:

Peter Robinson of the DUP and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin were nominated by their parties and appointed as First Minister and deputy First Minister on 12 May 2011. Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister opposed the joint appointment. [34] On 16 May 2011, 10 other Executive ministers (with the exception of the Minister of Justice) and two junior ministers were appointed by their political parties. The Minister of Justice was then elected by the Assembly via a cross-community vote.[35]

Executive Committee

The current Northern Ireland Executive, formed on 16 May 2011, is constituted as follows:

Portfolio Minister Party
First Minister     Peter Robinson Democratic Unionist
deputy First Minister     Martin McGuinness[36] Sinn Féin
Agriculture and Rural Development     Michelle O'Neill[37] Sinn Féin
Culture, Arts & Leisure     Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin
Education     John O'Dowd[37] Sinn Féin
Employment and Learning     Stephen Farry Alliance
Enterprise, Trade and Investment     Arlene Foster Democratic Unionist
Environment     Alex Attwood SDLP
Finance & Personnel     Sammy Wilson Democratic Unionist
Health, Social Services & Public Safety     Edwin Poots Democratic Unionist
Justice     David Ford[38] Alliance
Regional Development     Danny Kennedy Ulster Unionist
Social Development     Nelson McCausland Democratic Unionist

Two junior ministers in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister are not members of the Executive but also attend Executive meetings.

Portfolio Minister Party
Junior Minister (assisting deputy First Minister)     Martina Anderson Sinn Féin
Junior Minister (assisting First Minister)     Jonathan Bell Democratic Unionist

Ministers are assisted by backbench Assembly private secretaries (equivalent to parliamentary private secretaries). The non-political Attorney General for Northern Ireland is the chief legal advisor to the Executive, appointed by the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and may also attend Executive meetings.

See also


  1. ^ Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. "Site construction begins for the new PRONI Headquarters". Northern Ireland Executive. Retrieved 18 June 2011. 
  2. ^ Scholes, William (2007-03-10). "UUP and SDLP rule out suggestions of forming opposition" (Reprint). The Irish News. Retrieved 2007-04-03. 
  3. ^ Section 20, Northern Ireland Act 1998
  4. ^ Northern Ireland Executive Ministerial Code
  5. ^ Article 4, The Departments (Northern Ireland) Order 1999
  6. ^ Section 22, Northern Ireland Act 1998
  7. ^ Section 23, Northern Ireland Act 1998
  8. ^ Section 26, Northern Ireland Act 1998
  9. ^ Section 24, Northern Ireland Act 1998
  10. ^ Section 25, Northern Ireland Act 1998
  11. ^ Section 28B, Northern Ireland Act 1998
  12. ^ Section 17, Northern Ireland Act 1998
  13. ^ Section 19A, Northern Ireland Act 1998
  14. ^ Section 20, Northern Ireland Act 1998
  15. ^ Section 28D, Northern Ireland Act 1998
  16. ^ Section 28E, Northern Ireland Act 1998
  17. ^ "Improving Children’s Life Chances". Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. 22 March 2011. Retrieved 11 November 2011. 
  18. ^ "Lifetime Opportunities". Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. 13 November 2006. Retrieved 11 November 2011. 
  19. ^ "Language/Cultural Diversity". Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. Retrieved 11 November 2011. 
  20. ^ "First Minister (Designate) and Deputy". Official Report. Northern Ireland Assembly. 1 July 1998. Retrieved 25 October 2011. 
  21. ^ "Nomination of Ministers (Designate)". Official Report. Northern Ireland Assembly. 29 November 1999. Retrieved 25 October 2011. 
  22. ^ Article 2, Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Commencement) Order 2000
  23. ^ Article 2, Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Restoration of Devolved Government) Order 2000
  24. ^ Article 1, Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) Order 2001
  25. ^ Article 2, Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Restoration of Devolved Government) Order 2001
  26. ^ Article 1, Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) (No.2) Order 2001
  27. ^ Article 2, Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Restoration of Devolved Government) (No.2) Order 2001
  28. ^ Article 1, Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) Order 2002
  29. ^ Article 2, Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Restoration of Devolved Government) Order 2007
  30. ^ "Reid set to suspend Assembly". BBC Northern Ireland. 14 October 2002. Retrieved 25 October 2011. 
  31. ^ "Affirmation of the Terms of the Pledge of Office — First Minister (Designate) and Deputy First Minister (Designate), Appointment of Ministers & Appointment of Junior Ministers". Official Report. Northern Ireland Assembly. 8 May 2007. Retrieved 25 October 2011. 
  32. ^ "Water charges deferred for a year". BBC Northern Ireland. 20 November 2008. Retrieved 25 October 2011. 
  33. ^ "Assembly Business: Minister of Justice". Official Report. Northern Ireland Assembly. 12 April 2010. Retrieved 25 October 2011. 
  34. ^ "First Minister and deputy First Minister: Appointment and Pledge of Office". Official Report. Northern Ireland Assembly. 12 May 2011. Retrieved 31 October 2011. 
  35. ^ "Appointment of Ministers, Appointment of Junior Ministers & Minister of Justice". Official Report. Northern Ireland Assembly. 16 May 2011. Retrieved 31 October 2011. 
  36. ^ "DUP and Sinn Féin in joint letter". BBC News Online (BBC). 2007-04-01. Retrieved 2007-04-03. 
  37. ^ a b "Sinn Féin reveals ministerial jobs". BBC News Online (BBC). 2007-04-04. Retrieved 2007-04-04. 
  38. ^ "RTÉ News: David Ford becomes Minister for Justice". RTE News (RTE). 2010-10-04. Retrieved 2010-10-04. 

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