The Northern Ireland Assembly
The Northern Ireland Assembly is the devolved legislature for Northern Ireland. It is responsible for passing laws on transferred matters. Transferred matters are those which are now under the direct control of local ministers and the Assembly.
Transferred matters include health, education, agriculture and rural development and policing and justice. The Assembly is responsible for scrutinising the work of ministers and government departments. The Assembly sits in Parliament Buildings at Stormont in Belfast.
The organisation of the Assembly
The public elect 108 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs). There are six MLAs elected to each of the 18 constituencies across Northern Ireland.
The Assembly is chaired by a Speaker and three deputy Speakers. At least ten members (including the Speaker) must be present in order for a vote to be taken on any matter. The Speaker is responsible for chairing debates in the Assembly, acting as its representative, chairing its Business Committee and the Assembly Commission, which is the Assembly’s corporate body.
The Assembly Commission ensures that the Assembly has the property, staff and services it needs to carry out its work. The staff of the Assembly is known collectively as the Assembly Secretariat.
The work of MLAs
MLAs spend their time at the Assembly debating in the Chamber (also called attending plenary sittings), taking part in Committee meetings and working in their constituencies.
When the Assembly is sitting, MLAs generally spend their time working in Parliament Buildings. They raise issues affecting their constituents, attend and speak in debates, vote on new laws and ask Ministers formal questions. Most MLAs are also members of Committees which examine the work of individual government departments, policy, new laws and wider topics in detail.
In their constituency, MLAs hold surgeries in their offices, where local people can discuss any matters that concern them. MLAs also attend functions, visit schools and businesses and generally try to meet as many people as possible. This gives them insight and context for issues they may discuss when they return to the Assembly.
The Assembly has a number of Statutory Committees. These Committees advise and help each Northern Ireland minister to develop policy in specific areas. There are also a number of other Committees (called Standing Committees) which deal with Assembly administration (for example, a Business Committee to agree what business should be discussed in plenary sessions). From time to time temporary committees (ad hoc committees) are also set up to deal with specific issues.
The Chairpersons and Deputy Chairpersons of the Committees are selected by the nominating officers of the main political parties depending on their party strengths. Other committee seats are allocated on a proportional basis so that the share of members of each party on a committee should be roughly proportionate to its overall share of seats in the Assembly. Committees of the Assembly take decisions by a simple majority vote. They normally meet weekly and most meetings are open to the public.
How can you get involved in Assembly Committees?
You can attend Committee meetings at Parliament Buildings or around the country, write to the Committee on issues that concern you, watch Committee meetings live online or catch up on meetings you’ve missed with the Listen Again facility. More information about Assembly Committees can be found on the Assembly website.
How laws are made in the Assembly
The Assembly debates and passes legislation. A proposal for a new law is called a Bill. Most Bills are introduced by a minister in the Executive, but a Bill can also be introduced by an Assembly Committee or by an individual MLA.
Before a Bill is introduced to the Assembly there are a number of steps which have to be undertaken to ensure that the legislation achieves the intended outcome. This will often involve a period of detailed policy development by civil servants in the responsible department and a public consultation exercise. As part of this process, the relevant Statutory Committee of the Assembly is also consulted by the department, and the minister responsible will bring his or her proposals to the Executive for consideration.
You can comment on proposals within a Bill by:
- writing to your MLA
- contacting the government department responsible for the Bill
- submitting evidence to the relevant Assembly Committee
A Bill must pass through several stages in the Assembly to become a law:
- First Stage - the Bill is introduced to the Assembly
- Second Stage - general debate on the principles of the Bill
- Committee Stage - the Bill is referred to the appropriate Statutory Committee for detailed scrutiny
- Consideration Stage - MLAs have an opportunity in plenary session to debate all the clauses in the Bill and any proposed amendments
- Further Consideration Stage - provides a final opportunity for amendments to the Bill
- Final Stage - a final vote is taken that the Bill should be passed
Acts of the Northern Ireland Assembly
Once a Bill has completed its passage in the Assembly, it is referred for Royal Assent - formal agreement by the reigning monarch - before becoming law. When granted Royal Assent it becomes an Act of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
An Act can come into force immediately, at some future date, or in stages. Its practical implementation is the responsibility of the relevant government department.
Public access to the Assembly
Full meetings of the Assembly, known as a plenary sitting, are held twice a week, on Mondays and Tuesdays. During plenary sittings MLAs consider legislation, debate motions and ask questions of Ministers about departmental issues.
Parliament Buildings is open to the public between 9.00 am and 4.00 pm Monday to Friday. You can watch the Assembly in action from the public gallery on Mondays from 12 noon and Tuesdays from 10.30 am. You can also access Plenary sittings live on the Assembly website.
There is pedestrian access to the Stormont Estate between 7.30 am and 6.00 pm daily, with later closing times in the summer months. Regular Citybus services (Service Numbers 22 and 23) are available to and from the Stormont Estate, Monday to Friday.
The Assembly also has an education service that facilitates school visits. These visits may include:
- a question and answer session with MLAs
- an activity session - for example, a mock election
- a talk by Assembly staff
You can find out more on the education section of the Assembly website.
Northern Ireland Executive
The Northern Ireland Executive exercises execuitve authority on behalf of the Northern Ireland Assembly. A First Minister and a deputy First Minister are nominated by the largest and second largest parties respectively to act as co-chairs of the Executive Committee. They are assisted by two junior ministers.in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
The Executive also has 11 other ministers,who are also nominated by the parties in the Assembly in accordance with the size of their representation. Each minister will be nominated to assume responsibility for a specific department. The Executive meets to take decisions on significant issues and on matters which cut across the responsibilities of departments.