Overview of government in Northern Ireland

There are different levels of government in Northern Ireland. This includes your local council, the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the UK Parliament at Westminster. Politicians working at the different levels will have different roles and responsibilities.

Background to devolution in the UK

Following referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in 1998 and in Scotland and Wales in 1997, the UK Parliament transferred a range of powers to national parliaments or assemblies.

The Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly were established, and affirmed responsibility for devolved matters in 1999. The arrangements are different for each, reflecting their history and administrative structures.

The UK government remains responsible for national policy on all matters that have not been devolved, including foreign affairs, defence, social security, macro-economic management and trade.

It is also responsible for government policy in England on all the matters that have been devolved to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

Within the UK government, the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are responsible for the Scotland Office, the Wales Office and the Northern Ireland Office.

Find out more about devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Devolution in Northern Ireland

Devolution means that the United Kingdom government has transferred a wide range of powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly. This means that local politicians, instead of MPs in Westminster, make key decisions on how Northern Ireland is governed.

Some powers still lie with the UK government. These can be either 'reserved' matters which might transfer to the Northern Ireland Assembly at a future date; or 'excepted' matters which will stay with the UK government indefinitely.

The Northern Ireland Office is responsible for overseeing the Northern Ireland devolution settlement. It also represents Northern Ireland interests at UK Government level and UK Government interests in Northern Ireland.

Find out more about the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland, including what powers are transferred, reserved or excepted.

Northern Ireland Assembly

The Northern Ireland Assembly was established as part of the Belfast Agreement (also known as the Good Friday Agreement) in 1998. Devolution to Northern Ireland was suspended in October 2002 and restored on 8 May 2007.

The Assembly is the cornerstone of the devolved Northern Ireland government. It is where political representatives debate and pass laws on important issues that affect everyone in Northern Ireland.

It is made up of 90 representatives, known as Members of the Legislative Assembly or MLAs, who come from different political parties and a small number of independent MLAs. Each MLA must identify him or herself as 'Unionist', 'Nationalist' or 'Other'.

Northern Ireland Executive

The Northern Ireland Executive committee runs the devolved government in Northern Ireland on behalf of the Assembly.

It is made up of the First Minister and deputy First Minister who are joint Chairs and eight other ministers, seven of which are nominated by the political parties in the Assembly through a procedure known as d’Hondt and the Minister of Justice who is appointed through a cross-community vote in the Assembly.

The number of ministerial posts any party can have is determined by the number of MLAs they have in the Assembly. Each minister is nominated to take charge of a particular department.

Northern Ireland government departments

There are nine Northern Ireland government departments:

  • Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs
  • Communities
  • Economy
  • Education
  • Executive Office
  • Finance
  • Health
  • Infrastructure
  • Justice

You can find more information and contact details for each department at this link:

UK government

In the UK, the Prime Minister leads the government with the support of the Cabinet and ministers. 

The Cabinet is made up of the senior members of government.

Every week during Parliament, members of the Cabinet (Secretaries of State from all departments and some other ministers) meet to discuss the most important issues for the government.

The UK Parliament, examines what the Government is doing, makes new laws, holds the power to set taxes and debates the issues of the day.

The House of Commons and House of Lords each play an important role in Parliament's work.

House of Commons

The House of Commons is elected by the public. The political party with the most members forms the government of the UK. Northern Ireland politicians are elected to the House of Commons but the majority come from England, Scotland and Wales.

MPs debate the big political issues of the day and proposals for new laws. You can have a voice in the UK Parliament by voting in the next general election for the Northern Ireland politician who you feel will speak for you and your views.

House of Lords

The House of Lords acts as a revising chamber for law and it works alongside the House of Commons. The Lords shares the task of making and shaping laws and checking and challenging the work of the government.

Local government

Local government in Northern Ireland is made up of 11 local councils, run by elected councillors. They look after a range of services such as your local sport and leisure centre or arranging your bin collections.

You can find out more about your local council, what it does and how its funded by visiting the local councils page.

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