The Northern Ireland Assembly

The Northern Ireland Assembly is the devolved legislature for Northern Ireland. It has the power to make laws in a wide range of areas, including housing, employment, education, health, agriculture and the environment. It meets at Parliament Buildings, Belfast.

Overview of the assembly

The Assembly is responsible for scrutinising the work of ministers and government departments. It passes laws on transferred matters including health, education, agriculture and rural development and policing and justice. Transferred matters are those which are now under the direct control of local ministers and the Assembly.

The public elect 90 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs). There are five 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.

Most decisions of the Assembly are taken by a simple majority vote. However, certain key decisions such as approval of the budget must have cross-community support. Cross-community support is defined in law as the support of the majority voting, a majority of those designated nationalist voting and a majority of those designated unionist voting.

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, go to 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 go to 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.

Assembly Committees

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.

You can go to committee meetings at Parliament Buildings or around the country, write to the committees on issues that concern you, watch committee meetings live online or catch up on meetings you’ve missed with the Listen Again facility.

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.

Consultation

Before a Bill is introduced to the Assembly there are a number of steps which have to be undertaken to make sure 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

Bill stages

A Bill must pass through several stages in the Assembly to become a law.

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.

Visiting Parliament Buildings

Parliament Buildings, the home of the NI Assembly, is open to the public from 9.00 am to 4.00 pm, Monday to Friday. Free guided tours are available each day at 11.00 am and 2.00 pm.

There is pedestrian access to the Stormont Estate. Check opening times on the NI Assembly website.

The Assembly also has an education service that organises visits for schools.

 

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