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The Northern Ireland Assembly

The Northern Ireland Assembly was established as a result of the Belfast Agreement of 10 April 1998. The Agreement was the outcome of a long process of talks between the Northern Ireland political parties and the British and Irish Governments.

The Agreement was endorsed through a referendum held on 22 May 1998 and subsequently given legal force through the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It led to the creation of a series of interrelated bodies, in particular the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has full legislative and executive authority for all matters that are the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Government Departments and are known as transferred matters. Excepted matters remain the responsibility of the Westminster Parliament. Reserved matters are also dealt with by Westminster unless it is decided by the Secretary of State that some of these should be devolved to the Assembly. Excepted and reserved matters are defined in the Schedules to the NI Act.

Electing the Northern Ireland Assembly

The Assembly was elected on 25 June 1998 under the terms of the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998. It was called the New Northern Ireland Assembly to distinguish it from the Northern Ireland Assembly for which legislative provision remained at that time under the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973.

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 stated that the Assembly would be known as the "New Northern Ireland Assembly" in the pre-devolution or "shadow" period and that at the date of devolution it would be called the "Northern Ireland Assembly"

The New Northern Ireland Assembly met for the first time on 1 July 1998 in Castle Buildings on the Stormont Estate. The then Secretary of State the Rt Hon Dr Marjorie Mowlam MP appointed Lord Alderdice as Initial Presiding Officer for the first sitting of the Assembly with the intention that the Assembly would then elect a Presiding Officer.

In the event, no election for a Presiding Officer was held and on the date of devolution, as provided for in the Northern Ireland Act 1998, Lord Alderdice, as the incumbent, was confirmed in office. The Standing Orders of the Assembly, which took effect from the date of devolution, provided for the Presiding Officer to be addressed as "Speaker".

At the first meeting of the Assembly, the Rt Hon David Trimble MP was elected as First Minister (Designate) and Mr Seamus Mallon MP as Deputy First Minister (Designate).

The refurbishment of the Assembly Chamber in Parliament Buildings was completed during the summer months, and since the second sitting on 14 September 1998 the Assembly has met in that Chamber.

How the Northern Ireland Assembly operates

The Northern Ireland Assembly consists of 108 elected Members - six from each of the 18 Westminster constituencies. Its role is primarily to scrutinise and make decisions on the issues dealt with by Government Departments and to consider and make legislation.

A First Minister and a Deputy First Minister are elected to lead the Executive Committee of Ministers. They must stand for election jointly and to be elected they must have cross-community support by the parallel consent formula, which means that a majority of both the Members who have designated themselves Nationalists and those who have designated themselves Unionists and a majority of the whole Assembly, must vote in favour.

The First Minister and Deputy First Minister head the Executive Committee of Ministers and acting jointly, determine the total number of Ministers in the Executive.

The parties elected to the Assembly choose Ministerial portfolios and select Ministers in proportion to their party strength. Each party has a designated nominating officer and the d'Hondt procedure is used for the appointment of Ministers.

Statutory Departmental Committees are also established to advise and assist each Minister in the formulation of policy for his/her Department and to scrutinise the work of that Department. Committee Chairpersons and Deputy Chairpersons are elected using the d'Hondt procedure. Committee membership is filled based on party strengths in accordance with Standing Order 47. There is also a number Standing and Ad Hoc Committees.

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