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Northern Ireland Executive

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Northern Ireland Executive
Established2 December 1999 (1999-12-02)
StateNorthern Ireland
LeaderFirst Minister and deputy First Minister
Appointed byNorthern Ireland Assembly
Main organExecutive Committee
Annual budget£12.2 billion (2020–21)[1]
HeadquartersStormont Castle, Stormont Estate, Belfast

The Northern Ireland Executive is the devolved government of Northern Ireland, an administrative branch of the legislature – the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is answerable to the assembly and was initially established according to the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which followed the Good Friday Agreement (or Belfast Agreement). The executive is referred to in the legislation as the Executive Committee of the assembly and is an example of consociationalist ("power-sharing") government.

The Northern Ireland Executive consists of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and various ministers with individual portfolios and remits. The main assembly parties appoint most ministers in the executive, except for the Minister of Justice who is elected by a cross-community vote. It is one of three devolved governments in the United Kingdom, the others being the Scottish and Welsh governments.

In January 2017, the then deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned in protest over the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal and the Northern Ireland Executive consequently collapsed.[2] The governing of Northern Ireland fell to civil servants in a caretaker capacity until January 2020, when the parties signed the New Decade, New Approach agreement and an Executive was subsequently established.[3] When Democratic Unionist Party First Minister Paul Givan resigned in line with his party's protest over the Northern Ireland Protocol, The Northern Ireland Executive collapsed again.[4] No agreement on power-sharing was made after the 2022 Assembly election, and since October 2022, Northern Ireland has been governed by civil servants.[5]

Legal basis

The Executive (and the Assembly) were established in law by the Northern Ireland Act 1998 that followed the Good Friday Agreement and its basis was revised by the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 that followed the St Andrews Agreement of that year.


On 9 May 2016,[6] the number of ministries and departments of the Northern Ireland Executive was reduced, leaving the following departments:[7]

At the same time, various departments were renamed as follows:

  • The Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister was renamed the Executive Office
  • The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development was renamed the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs
  • The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment was renamed the Department for the Economy
  • The Department of Finance and Personnel was renamed the Department of Finance
  • The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety was renamed the Department of Health
  • The Department for Regional Development was renamed the Department for Infrastructure
  • The Department for Social Development was renamed the Department for Communities

The following departments were dissolved:


In contrast with Westminster system cabinets, which generally need only be backed by a majority of legislators, ministerial positions in the Northern Ireland Executive are allocated to parties with significant representation in the Assembly. With the exception of justice, the number of ministries to which each party is entitled is determined by the D'Hondt system.

In effect, major parties cannot be excluded from participation in government and power-sharing is enforced by the system. The form of government is therefore known as mandatory coalition as opposed to voluntary coalition where parties negotiate an agreement to share power. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland and some Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) members favour a move towards voluntary coalition in the longer term but this is currently[when?] opposed by Sinn Féin.[citation needed]

The executive cannot function if either of the two largest parties refuse to take part, as these parties are allocated the First Minister and deputy First Minister positions. However, other parties are not required to enter the executive even if they are entitled to do so; instead, they can choose to go into opposition if they wish. There were some calls for the SDLP and the UUP to enter opposition after the 2007 Assembly elections,[8] but ultimately the two parties chose to take the seats in the Executive to which they were entitled.

In 2010, an exception to the D'Hondt system for allocating the number of ministerial portfolios was made under the Hillsborough Castle Agreement to allow the cross-community Alliance Party of Northern Ireland to hold the politically contentious policing and justice brief when most of those powers were devolved to the Assembly. Devolution took place on 12 April 2010.

Under D'Hondt, the SDLP would have been entitled to the extra ministerial seat on the revised Executive created by the devolution of policing and justice. Accordingly, both the UUP and SDLP protested that Alliance was not entitled, under the rules of the Good Friday Agreement, to fill the portfolio and refused to support this move. However, Alliance leader David Ford was elected Minister with the support of the DUP and Sinn Féin.

On 26 August 2015, the UUP announced it would withdraw from the Executive and form an opposition after all, in response to the assassination of Kevin McGuigan.

On 25 May 2016 a new executive was announced (three weeks after assembly election). For the first time in the assembly's history, parties that were entitled to ministries (i.e. UUP, SDLP and Alliance) chose instead to go into opposition following a recent bill providing parties with this choice. This meant that the executive was formed only by the two major parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, and thus giving them more seats in the Executive (with the exception of the Department of Justice which was given to an Independent Unionist MLA, Claire Sugden, due to this appointment needing cross-community support).[9]


Stormont Castle, seat of the Executive

The Executive is co-chaired by the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Its official functions are:

  • acting as a forum for the discussion of, and agreement on, issues which cut across the responsibilities of two or more ministers;
  • prioritising executive and legislative proposals;
  • discussing and agreeing upon significant or controversial matters; and
  • recommending a common position where necessary (e.g. in dealing with external relationships).[10]

Executive meetings are normally held fortnightly, compared to weekly meetings of the British Cabinet and Irish Government. Under the Executive's Ministerial Code, ministers are obliged to:[11]

The Ministerial Code allows any three ministers to request a cross-community vote. The quorum for voting is seven ministers.

Dundonald House, home to various government agencies

The current system of devolution has succeeded long periods of direct rule (1974–1999 and 2002–2007), when the Northern Ireland Civil Service had a considerable influence on government policy. The legislation which established new departments in 1999 affirmed that "the functions of a department shall at all times be exercised subject to the direction and control of the Minister".[12] Ministerial powers can be conferred by an Act of the Assembly[13] and ministers can also exercise executive powers which are vested in the Crown.[14]

Ministers are also subject to several limitations, including the European Convention on Human Rights, European Union law, other international obligations of the UK,[15] a requirement not to discriminate on religious or political grounds,[16] and having no power over reserved and excepted matters (which are held by the United Kingdom Government).[17]

Ministerial decisions can be challenged by a petition of 30 Northern Ireland Assembly members. This action can be taken for alleged breaches of the Ministerial Code and on "matters of public importance". The Speaker of the Assembly must consult political party leaders in the Assembly (who are often also ministers) before deciding whether the subject is a matter of public importance. Successful petitions will then be considered by the Executive.[18]

The number of ministers and their responsibilities can be changed when a department is being established or dissolved. The proposal must be made by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister and be carried by a cross-community vote in the Assembly. The number of departments was initially limited to 10 but this increased to 11 upon the devolution of justice.[19]

Ministers are disqualified from holding office if appointed to the Government of Ireland or as the chairman or deputy chairman of an Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) committee.[20]


The Good Friday Agreement states that the Executive will "seek to agree each year, and review as necessary" a Programme for Government incorporating an agreed budget.[10]

The following programmes for government have been published to date:

The following budgets have been published to date:

Under the St Andrews Agreement, the Executive is obliged to adopt strategies on the following policy matters:

  • enhancing and protecting the development of the Irish language;
  • enhancing and developing Ulster Scots language, heritage and culture; and
  • tackling poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation based on objective need.[21][22]

The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister published a child poverty strategy in March 2011.[23] The wider anti-poverty strategy was carried over from direct rule in November 2006.[24] As of November 2011, neither an Irish language strategy nor an Ulster Scots strategy had been adopted. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure states that a Strategy for Indigenous or Regional Minority Languages "will be presented to the Executive in due course".[25]



The original Northern Ireland Executive was established on 1 January 1974, following the Sunningdale Agreement. It comprised a voluntary coalition between the Ulster Unionist Party, Social Democratic and Labour Party and Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, with the UUP's Brian Faulkner in the position of Chief Executive. It was short-lived, collapsing on 28 May 1974 due to the Ulster Workers' Council strike, and the Troubles continued in the absence of a political settlement.

Composition since devolution

Historical composition of the Northern Ireland Executive
Executive (Assembly) Date Event Mandatory coalition:
Executive Office
Other departments Cross-community
appointment: Justice
D'Hondt method allocation Vacant
FM & j.m. dFM & j.m.
UUP (U) SDLP (N) DUP (U) SF (N) Alli. (O)
1st E. (1st A.) 1 July 1998 formation UUP SDLP 10 - 3 3 2 2 0 0
14 October 2002 dissolution 10 10
2nd E. (3rd A.) 8 May 2007 formation DUP SF 10 - 2 1 4 3 0 0
12 April 2010 devolution DUP SF 11 Alliance 2 1 4 3 0 0
11 May 2011 dissolution 11 11
3rd E. (4th A.) 16 May 2011 formation DUP SF 11 Alliance 1 1 4 3 1 0
1 September 2015 resignation DUP SF 11 Alliance R 1 4 3 1 1
20 October 2015 reallocation DUP SF 11 Alliance R 1 5 3 1 0
16 May 2016 dissolution 11 11
4th E. (5th A.) 26 May 2016 formation DUP SF 8 Ind. (U) R R 4 3 0 0
16 January 2017 dissolution 8 8
5th E. (6th A.), (7th A.) 11 Jan 2020 formation DUP SF 8 Alliance 1 1 3 2 0 0
16 May 2022 reallocation Vacant 1 R 3 3 0 0
FM, dFM = First and deputy First Minister; j.m. = junior minister; R = resigned or refused posts entitled to under the D'Hondt method.


The current Executive was provided for in the Belfast Agreement, signed on 10 April 1998. Designates for First Minister and deputy First Minister were appointed on 1 July 1998 by the UUP and SDLP, respectively.[26] A full Executive was nominated on 29 November 1999 and took office on 2 December 1999, comprising the UUP, SDLP, Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin.[27] Devolution was suspended for four periods, during which the departments came under the responsibility of direct rule ministers from the Northern Ireland Office:

The 2002–2007 suspension followed the refusal of the Ulster Unionist Party to share power with Sinn Féin after a high-profile Police Service of Northern Ireland investigation into an alleged Provisional Irish Republican Army spy ring.[36]


The second Executive formed in 2007 was led by the DUP and Sinn Féin, with the UUP and SDLP also securing ministerial roles.[37]

However, the Executive did not meet between 19 June 2008 and 20 November 2008 due to a boycott by Sinn Féin. This took place during a dispute between the DUP and Sinn Féin over the devolution of policing and justice powers.[38] Policing and justice powers were devolved on 12 April 2010, with the new Minister of Justice won by Alliance in a cross-community vote.[39]


Following the Northern Ireland Assembly election held on 5 May 2011, a third Executive was formed on 16 May 2011 with the same five parties represented. Alliance for the first time gained administration of a department under the D'Hondt system, in addition to the Department of Justice.

Peter Robinson of the DUP and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin were nominated by their parties and appointed as First Minister and deputy First Minister on 12 May 2011. Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister opposed the joint appointment.[40] On 16 May 2011, 10 other Executive ministers (with the exception of the Minister of Justice) and two junior ministers were appointed by their political parties. The Minister of Justice was then elected by the Assembly via a cross-community vote.[41]

On 26 August 2015, the UUP withdrew from the Executive in protest over the alleged involvement of members of the Provisional IRA in the murder of Kevin McGuigan Sr.[42] Danny Kennedy MLA's position as Minister for Regional Development was later taken over by the DUP, thereby leaving four Northern Irish parties in the power sharing agreement. On 10 September 2015 Peter Robinson stepped down as First Minister, although he did not officially resign. Arlene Foster took over as acting First Minister.[43] Robinson subsequently resumed his duties as First Minister again on 20 October 2015.[44]

Following the signing of the Fresh Start Agreement, Peter Robinson announced his intention to stand down as leader of the DUP and First Minister of Northern Ireland. He subsequently resigned as DUP leader on 18 December 2015, being succeeded by Arlene Foster. Foster then took office as First Minister on 11 January 2016.[45]


The fourth Executive was formed following the May 2016 election. The SDLP, UUP and Alliance Party left the Executive and formed the Official Opposition for the first time. Ministerial positions were proportionally allocated between the DUP and Sinn Féin, with independent unionist Claire Sugden serving as Minister of Justice. The government collapsed on 16 January 2017, after Martin McGuinness resigned in protest over the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal. His resignation sparked a snap election as Sinn Féin refused to re-nominate a deputy First Minister.

In 2018, Arlene Foster stated that the ongoing political deadlock was caused by Sinn Féin's insistence on an Irish Language Act that would grant legal status to the Irish language in Northern Ireland, which Foster's party refuses to allow.[46]

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2019

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2019 was passed by the UK parliament on 10 July 2019[47] and became law on 24 July.[48] The main purpose of the bill was to prevent another election and keep Northern Ireland services running in the absence of a functional devolved government. However, two Labour MPs, Conor McGinn and Stella Creasy, added amendments that would legalize same-sex marriage and liberalize abortion law (both devolved issues) if the DUP and Sinn Féin could not come to an agreement before 21 October.[47]


On 11 January 2020, the Executive was re-formed with Arlene Foster as First Minister and Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill as deputy First Minister following the New Decade, New Approach agreement. All five parties joined the government; other ministers include Edwin Poots (DUP); Robin Swann (UUP), Nichola Mallon (SDLP), Gordon Lyons (DUP), and Declan Kearney (SF). Alliance Party leader Naomi Long was appointed justice minister. At the first session of the assembly, Foster stated that it was "time for Stormont to move forward". The new speaker of the assembly is a member of Sinn Féin.[49] The collapse of this executive led to the 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly election.

Executive committee

No executive has been formed since the 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly election. Before that, members of the last executive were elected on 11 January 2020.

Northern Ireland Executive
Portfolio Minister Party Term
Executive Ministers
First Minister Arlene Foster DUP 2020–2021
Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin 2020–2021
Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Edwin Poots DUP 2020–2022
Communities Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin 2020–2022
Economy Diane Dodds DUP 2020–2021
Education Peter Weir DUP 2020–2021
Finance Conor Murphy Sinn Féin 2020–2022
Health Robin Swann Ulster Unionist 2020–2022
Infrastructure Nichola Mallon SDLP 2020–2022
Justice Naomi Long Alliance 2020–2022
Also attending Executive meetings
Junior Minister (assisting the First Minister) Gordon Lyons DUP 2020–2021
Junior Minister (assisting the deputy First Minister) Declan Kearney Sinn Féin 2020–2022

Changes 14 June 2021

Office Name Party Term
Economy Paul Frew DUP 2021
Education Michelle McIlveen DUP 2021–2022

Changes 17 June 2021

Office Name Party Term
First Minister Paul Givan DUP 2021–2022
Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin 2021–2022
Junior Minister (assisting the First Minister) Gary Middleton DUP 2021–2022

Changes 6 July 2021

Office Name Party Term
Economy Gordon Lyons DUP 2021–2022

Changes 3 February 2022

Office Name Party Term
First Minister Vacant 2022
Deputy First Minister Vacant 2022

Changes 16 May 2022

Office Name Party Term
Infrastructure John O'Dowd Sinn Féin 2022

Ministers are assisted by backbench "Assembly private secretaries" (equivalent to parliamentary private secretaries). The non-political Attorney General for Northern Ireland is the chief legal advisor to the Executive, appointed by the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and may also attend Executive meetings.

See also


  1. ^ Murphy, Conor. "Budget 2020-21" (PDF). Department of Finance, Northern Ireland Executive. Retrieved 10 July 2020.
  2. ^ "Martin McGuinness resigns as NI deputy first minister". BBC News. 10 January 2017. Retrieved 7 November 2020.
  3. ^ "Stormont deal: Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill new top NI ministers". BBC News. 12 January 2020. Retrieved 7 November 2020.
  4. ^ Kearney, Vincent (3 February 2022). "Paul Givan resigns as NI First Minister". RTÉ News. Retrieved 25 July 2023.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  5. ^ "NI election looms as Stormont deadline passes". BBC News. 27 October 2022. Retrieved 25 July 2023.
  6. ^ "The Departments (2016 Act) (Commencement) Order (Northern Ireland) 2016".
  7. ^ Departments Act (Northern Ireland) 2016
  8. ^ Scholes, William (10 March 2007). "UUP and SDLP rule out suggestions of forming opposition" (Reprint). The Irish News. Retrieved 3 April 2007.
  9. ^ "Stormont: New NI power-sharing executive formed". BBC News. 25 May 2016. Retrieved 25 May 2016.
  10. ^ a b "Section 20, Northern Ireland Act 1998".
  11. ^ "Northern Ireland Executive Ministerial Code".
  12. ^ "Article 4, The Departments (Northern Ireland) Order 1999".
  13. ^ "Section 22, Northern Ireland Act 1998".
  14. ^ "Section 23, Northern Ireland Act 1998".
  15. ^ "Section 26, Northern Ireland Act 1998".
  16. ^ "Section 24, Northern Ireland Act 1998".
  17. ^ "Section 25, Northern Ireland Act 1998".
  18. ^ "Section 28B, Northern Ireland Act 1998".
  19. ^ "Section 17, Northern Ireland Act 1998".
  20. ^ "Section 19A, Northern Ireland Act 1998".
  21. ^ "Section 28D, Northern Ireland Act 1998".
  22. ^ "Section 28E, Northern Ireland Act 1998".
  23. ^ "Improving Children's Life Chances" (PDF). Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. 22 March 2011. Retrieved 11 November 2011.
  24. ^ "Lifetime Opportunities" (PDF). Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. 13 November 2006. Retrieved 11 November 2011.
  25. ^ "Language/Cultural Diversity". Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. Archived from the original on 25 October 2011. Retrieved 11 November 2011.
  26. ^ "First Minister (Designate) and Deputy". Official Report. Northern Ireland Assembly. 1 July 1998. Archived from the original on 16 December 2010. Retrieved 25 October 2011.
  27. ^ "Nomination of Ministers (Designate)". Official Report. Northern Ireland Assembly. 29 November 1999. Archived from the original on 29 August 2011. Retrieved 25 October 2011.
  28. ^ "The Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Commencement) Order 2000".
  29. ^ "The Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Restoration of Devolved Government) Order 2000".
  30. ^ "The Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) Order 2001".
  31. ^ "The Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Restoration of Devolved Government) Order 2001".
  32. ^ "The Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) (No.2) Order 2001".
  33. ^ "The Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Restoration of Devolved Government) (No.2) Order 2001".
  34. ^ "The Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Suspension of Devolved Government) Order 2002".
  35. ^ "The Northern Ireland Act 2000 (Restoration of Devolved Government) Order 2007".
  36. ^ Staff (14 October 2002). "Reid set to suspend Assembly". BBC News. Retrieved 27 July 2012.
  37. ^ "Affirmation of the Terms of the Pledge of Office – First Minister (Designate) and Deputy First Minister (Designate), Appointment of Ministers & Appointment of Junior Ministers". Official Report. Northern Ireland Assembly. 8 May 2007. Archived from the original on 29 August 2011. Retrieved 25 October 2011.
  38. ^ Staff (20 November 2008). "Water charges deferred for a year". BBC News. Retrieved 28 July 2012.
  39. ^ "Assembly Business: Minister of Justice". Official Report. Northern Ireland Assembly. 12 April 2010. Archived from the original on 29 August 2011. Retrieved 25 October 2011.
  40. ^ "First Minister and deputy First Minister: Appointment and Pledge of Office". Official Report. Northern Ireland Assembly. 12 May 2011. Archived from the original on 13 June 2011. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
  41. ^ "Appointment of Ministers, Appointment of Junior Ministers & Minister of Justice". Official Report. Northern Ireland Assembly. 16 May 2011. Archived from the original on 29 August 2011. Retrieved 31 October 2011.
  42. ^ "Ulster Unionist Party intends to leave NI Executive". BBC News. 26 August 2015. Retrieved 19 September 2016.
  43. ^ "NI first minister Peter Robinson steps aside in Stormont crisis". BBC. 10 September 2015. Retrieved 10 September 2015.
  44. ^ "DUP ministers resume Northern Ireland Executive posts". BBC. 20 October 2015. Retrieved 20 October 2015.
  45. ^ "Arlene Foster: DUP leader becomes new NI first minister". BBC News. 11 January 2016. Retrieved 19 September 2016.
  46. ^ Burke, Ceimin. "Explainer: What is the Irish Language Act and why is it causing political deadlock in Northern Ireland?". Retrieved 20 September 2019.
  47. ^ a b McCormack, Jayne (15 July 2019). "Northern Ireland bill - what happens next?". BBC. Retrieved 23 September 2019.
  48. ^ McCormack, Jayne (18 August 2019). "Q&A: Same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland". BBC. Retrieved 23 September 2019.
  49. ^ "DUP and Sinn Féin back in top jobs at Stormont". BBC News. 11 January 2020. Retrieved 12 January 2020.

External links

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