The Northern Ireland Executive is the administrative branch of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the devolved legislature for Northern Ireland. It is answerable to the Assembly and was 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 a consociationalist 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.


<a name='more'></a>Northern Ireland Executive


Northern Ireland Executive

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 opposed by Sinn Féin.

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, 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.


Northern Ireland 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).

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:

  • operate within the framework of the Programme for Government;
  • support all decisions of the Executive and Northern Ireland Assembly; and
  • participate fully in the Executive, the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council.

The Ministerial Code allows any 3 ministers to request a cross-community vote. The quorum for voting is 7 ministers. At present, the Executive consists of 6 unionist, 5 nationalist and 2 other (Alliance Party) ministers.

The current system of devolution has succeeded long periods of direct rule (1974â€"1999 and 2002â€"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". Ministerial powers can be conferred by an Act of the Assembly and ministers can also exercise executive powers which are vested in the Crown.

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

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.

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.

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.


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.

The following programmes for government have been published to date:

  • Draft Programme for Government (2001â€"2002) (25 October 2000)
  • Draft Programme for Government (2002â€"2003) (24 September 2001)
  • Programme for Government 2008â€"2011 (22 January 2008)

The 2011â€"2015 Executive was appointed in May 2011 but had not published a Programme for Government as of November 2011.

  • Programme for Government 2011â€"2015 (12 March 2012)

The following budgets have been published to date:

  • Budget 2008â€"11
  • Budget 2011â€"15

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.

The Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister published a child poverty strategy in March 2011. The wider anti-poverty strategy was carried over from direct rule in November 2006. 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".


Northern Ireland Executive


The original Northern Ireland Executive was established on 1 January 1974, following the Sunningdale Agreement, but collapsed on 28 May 1974 due to the Ulster Workers' Council strike. It comprised three parties:

  • Ulster Unionist Party (6 ministers)
  • Social Democratic and Labour Party (4 ministers)
  • Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (1 minister)

The Troubles continued in the absence of a political settlement.


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. A full Executive was nominated on 29 November 1999 and took office on 2 December 1999, comprising the following parties, in order of size:

  • Ulster Unionist Party (4 ministers and 1 junior minister)
  • Social Democratic and Labour Party (3 ministers and 1 junior minister)
  • Democratic Unionist Party (2 ministers)
  • Sinn Féin (2 ministers)

Devolution was suspended for four periods, during which the departments came under the responsibility of direct rule ministers from the Northern Ireland Office:

  • between 12 February 2000 and 30 May 2000;
  • on 11 August 2001;
  • on 22 September 2001;
  • between 15 October 2002 and 8 May 2007.

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.


Since 8 May 2007, devolution has operated without interruption. The second Executive formed in 2007 initially consisted of the following parties in order:

  • Democratic Unionist Party (5 ministers and 1 junior minister)
  • Sinn Féin (4 ministers and 1 junior minister)
  • Ulster Unionist Party (2 ministers)
  • Social Democratic and Labour Party (1 minister)

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. Policing and justice powers were devolved on 12 April 2010, with the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland holding the position of Minister of Justice in the Executive from that date.

2011 onwards

Following the Northern Ireland Assembly election held on 5 May 2011, a third Executive was formed on 16 May 2011 with the following parties represented:

  • Democratic Unionist Party (5 ministers and 1 junior minister)
  • Sinn Féin (4 ministers and 1 junior minister)
  • Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (2 ministers)
  • Ulster Unionist Party (1 minister)
  • Social Democratic and Labour Party (1 minister)

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. 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.

Executive Committee

The current Northern Ireland Executive, formed on 16 May 2011, is constituted as follows:

Two junior ministers in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister are not members of the Executive but also attend Executive meetings.

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

Northern Ireland Executive


Northern Ireland Executive

External links

  • Northern Ireland Executive
  • Northern Ireland Executive: Ministers and departments
  • Northern Ireland Executive: Ministerial Code
  • NIDirect portal

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