Meetings of the Executive are jointly chaired by the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and can also be attended by Junior Ministers and the Attorney General for Northern Ireland.
The Executive exercises executive authority on behalf of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It takes decisions on significant and controversial issues - matters which cut across the responsibility of two or more ministers, or which require a common Executive position, and on legislation proposed by ministers.
The Executive also agrees a Programme for Government and the Northern Ireland budget for approval by the Assembly.
Visit the Northern Ireland Executive website.
Appointed by the Assembly
The First Minister and deputy First Minister are nominated by the largest and second largest political parties respectively and act as joint chairs of the Executive.
Departmental ministers, with the exception of the Minister of Justice, are nominated by the political parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly, according to their share of seats in the Assembly (calculated using the d’Hondt system). The Minister of Justice is appointed following a cross-community Assembly vote.
The Ministerial Code sets out the rules and procedures to which all ministers must adhere. It includes the Pledge of Office, the Ministerial Code of Conduct, and the seven principles of public life, as well as conditions governing the functioning of the Executive Committee.
Government departments and ministers
There are nine government departments in Northern Ireland. The main role of the departments, and their agencies, is to put government policy in to action and to advise ministers.
You can find out more about the work of each department and its minister by visiting the departmental websites.
In May 2016 the number of government departments was reduced from 12 to nine, you can find out more about the changes at the link below.
An executive agency is a public institution that delivers government services for the Northern Ireland Executive. An agency does not set the policy required to carry out its functions - these are determined by the department that oversees the agency. For example, the Social Security Agency is an executive agency and part of the Department for Communities.
Agencies are headed by chief executives, who are personally responsible for day-to-day operations. They are normally directly accountable to the responsible minister, who in turn is accountable to the Assembly.
Non-departmental public bodies
A non-departmental public body (NDPB) is a national or regional public body, working independently of, but still accountable to ministers. They are not staffed by civil servants. There are two main types of NDPB.
Executive NDPBs are those with executive, administrative, commercial or regulatory functions. They carry out set functions within a government framework, but the degree of operational independence varies. Examples include the Housing Executive, Sport NI and the Consumer Council.
Advisory NDPBs are those set up by ministers to advise them and their departments on particular matters. Examples include the Historic Buildings Council, the Historic Monuments Council and the Older Peoples Advocate.
Staffing, finance and organisation
Departments and agencies are staffed by politically impartial civil servants and are funded by the Assembly. They work with local authorities, non-departmental public bodies, and other government-sponsored organisations.
The structure and functions of departments are sometimes reorganised if there are major changes in government policy. A change of government, however, does not necessarily affect the functions of departments.
The Northern Ireland Civil Service
The Northern Ireland Civil Service supports the Assembly, the Executive and the institutions of government. It serves local ministers and carries out the administrative work of government.
The Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service is Dr Malcolm McKibbin, Permanent Secretary of the Executive Office .
The most senior civil servant in each department is the permanent secretary who serves the minister and, as accounting officer, is responsible for making sure that money allocated to the department is spent appropriately.
The role of civil servants
Civil servants are politically impartial and are directly accountable to the minister in charge of the department in which they work.
Their role is to support the Executive and its ministers in delivering the commitments set out in the Programme for Government. In doing so civil servants are expected to show:
- integrity – putting the obligations of public service above their own personal interests
- honesty – being truthful and open
- objectivity – basing advice and decisions on strict analysis of the evidence
- impartiality – acting according to the merits of the case and serving equally well governments of different political persuasions
What civil servants do
Civil servants work in a wide range of areas across the many different aspects of government that touch on everyone’s day to day lives. Many provide services to the public such as:
- paying benefits and pensions
- helping people to find work
- staffing prisons
- issuing driving licences
- providing services to industry and agriculture
- maintaining roads
The Civil Service employs many different professions, all of whom play an important role in the delivery of government services, for example:
- health professionals
- lawyers, statisticians
- project managers
- veterinary surgeons
Staff also develop policy and draft legislation which is submitted to the Assembly for debate before it can become law.
The British-Irish Council
The British-Irish Council (BIC) was established as part of the multi-party agreement reached in Belfast on 10 April 1998. The BIC promotes positive, practical relationships among the people of its members and provides a forum for consultation and co-operation. Its membership comprises representatives from the following:
- Irish Government
- British Government
- Scottish Government
- Northern Ireland Executive
- Welsh Government
- Isle of Man Government
- States of Jersey
- States of Guernsey
The British Irish Council’s current work programme focuses on the following areas of mutual interest:
- misuse of drugs
- social inclusion
- indigenous, minority and lesser-used languages
- early years policy
- digital inclusion
- collaborative spatial planning
The North South Ministerial Council
The North South Ministerial Council (NSMC) brings together ministers from the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government. Its aim is to develop consultation, cooperation and action within the island of Ireland on matters of mutual interest.
The NSMC oversees the work of six areas of cooperation:
- tourism, including Tourism Ireland
In each area, common policies and approaches are agreed in the North South Ministerial Council but implemented separately in each jurisdiction.
The NSMC meets in different formats throughout the year. The plenary meetings, usually held twice a year, involve the Northern Ireland Executive led by the First Minister and deputy First Minister and the Irish Government led by the Taoiseach, meeting to take an overview of co-operation on the island and of the North South institutions.
At NSMC sectoral meetings the Northern Ireland Executive is represented by two ministers nominated by the First Minister and deputy First Minister on a cross-community basis. One is normally the minister with responsibility for that sector within the Executive. The Irish Government is represented by the Minister or the Minister of State responsible for that sector.
At NSMC institutional meetings the Northern Ireland Executive is represented by the First Minister and deputy First Minister. The Irish Government is represented by the Minister for Foreign Affairs. At these meetings the NSMC considers institutional and cross-sectoral issues, including those about the EU. It also endeavours to resolve disagreements and problems in the operations of the NSMC.
The work of the North South Ministerial Council is supported by a standing Joint Secretariat, staffed by members of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and the Irish Civil Service. The Secretariat is based in Armagh.
There are six North South Implementation Bodies and each operates on an all-island basis:
- Waterways Ireland
- Food Safety Promotion Board (Safefood)
- Trade and Business Development Body (InterTradeIreland)
- Special European Union Programmes Body (SEUPB)
- The Language Body / Foras na Gaeilge / Ulster Scots Agency
- Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission (Loughs Agency)
Find out more about North South Implementation Bodies.