A Guide to the Northern Ireland Assembly
What is it?
The assembly was established as part of the Good Friday Agreement. It is an elected body that has full executive (decision making) and legislative (law making) power over 'transferred matters'. These are areas of law and governance that have been devolved from Westminster, for example education, health and agriculture. Policing and criminal law were considered to be 'reserved matters', but significantly these powers were transferred to the Northern Ireland Assembly in April 2010 with the appointment of David Ford as the Minister of Justice. As for issues of national importance such as defence, foreign policy and taxation, they will remain with Westminster, deemed 'excepted matters'.
The body of the assembly is made up of 109 elected MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) representing different political parties. Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness as Ministers for the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and the other government departments Ministers, appointed according to party strength, come together to form the Executive Committee. The Executive has various roles: They bring proposals for primary legislation in the form of Bills and subordinate legislation in the form of statutory rules, set the programme for government and present the budget for approval by the assembly.
What does it do and how?
The work of the Assembly is carried out in various different ways. The whole Assembly meets twice weekly for plenary meetings in the Assembly Chamber where matters are discussed and voted upon in full view of the public gallery.
Statutory committees then carry out the vast majority of work concerning legislation, public scrutiny (e.g. initiating inquiries), advising, and consultation. The committees are based upon the government departments. [More information on the departments/committees]
In addition there are several Standing Committees which deal with issues predominantly concerned with the running and resourcing of the Assembly. Finally, Ad Hoc Committees, like the name suggests, are set up as and when needed for time bounded issues that may need special attention.
Why and how should I get involved?
As most of the policies that affect our everyday lives come from the Assembly, whether that is school closures, the water charge, or funding for our local hospitals, changes can only come if we get involved. MLAs, as elected representatives, can only perform their duties in the Assembly if they are made aware of the concerns faced by their constituents. Engaging with the process is the only way the desired issues are brought to the table, in this case the Assembly Chamber, and the outcome of decisions influenced.
It's very easy to get involved!
- Why not 'adopt' your local MLA – Pray for them and support them in their role.
- Become an advocate - You may work in or be passionate about education, health or justice. Why not get involved at a local level, perhaps in your council, community group or another local forum.
- Details on how to contact all MLAs can be found on sites such as www.theyworkforyou.com, here you can also find records of all the debates that have taken place in the Assembly and how particular MLAs may have contributed. You may wish to send a letter to your local MLA on a particular issue or to encourage them.
- The official Assembly website www.niassembly.gov.uk also contains details of assembly business and agendas. If you are particularly interested in an upcoming debate, the public gallery is open for most Monday and Tuesday Plenary Meetings. Some committees are also open to the public (details can be found on the Assembly website).
For the latest information and live coverage of the Northern Ireland Assembly, watch the BBC Democracy Live channel for Northern Ireland.