Devolution in N Ireland

Devolution in Northern Ireland was established following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which sought to bring the two main communities in the province together. These are the unionists, who want to keep Northern Ireland within the UK, and the nationalists and republicans, who wish to see a united, independent Ireland. The devolution settlement was part of the wider resolution of 30 years of conflict between the Republican (largely Catholic) and Loyalist (largely Protestant) communities. There had been devolved government in the province between 1921 and 1972, with a Northern Ireland Parliament (often known as Stormont, where it met) and government in control of such issues as education, welfare, health, policing, much criminal and civil law, housing and local government. With increasing sectarian violence breaking out in the 1970s, the Parliament was dissolved in 1972.

These political divisions broadly correlate to the differing religious identities of the two communities — unionists are historically linked to Protestantism, and nationalists to Catholicism. This makes the politics of Northern Ireland very different from that of the rest of the UK. The process of devolution has been more uneven than in Scotland and Wales, with the Northern Ireland Assembly being suspended by the UK government in London on more than one occasion following a breakdown of trust between the Unionist and republican groups. This included a period of suspension that lasted for almost 5 years, from 2002-07.

The Northern Ireland Assembly, located in Belfast, consists of 108 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), elected by Single Transferable Vote. The use of this highly proportional voting system ensures the representation of both sides rather than the dominance of the larger grouping, and thus leads to the adoption of a power-sharing system of government. The executive is headed by a First Minister and a deputy First Minister, who until January 2017 were Arlene Foster (leader of the Democratic Unionist Party) and the late Martin McGuinness (of republican party Sinn Fein). Seats in the assembly are allocated in proportion to the parties' strength in the Assembly.

In addition there are a number of `reserved matters', which are normally the domain of Westminster, but on which the Assembly can legislate with the consent of the Northern Ireland Secretary (a member of the UK Cabinet). These include financial services, broadcasting, consumer safety and firearms.

The UK government dissolved the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2002 in the face of increased tension between the two communities and the failure of ministers from the two communities to cooperate with each other. The suspension lasted until 2007.The Assembly was in a period of suspension until January 2020, after it collapsed in January 2017 due to policy disagreements between its power-sharing leadership, particularly following the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal.