In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement, also known as the Belfast Agreement, was reached by multi-party consensus to bring an end to the violence in Northern Ireland and establish the current political system. Unlike the devolved assemblies set up in Wales, Scotland and London around the same time, the Good Friday Agreement set up a power-sharing style of government that relies on the cooperation of different social groups.
This model of power-sharing was designed for societies emerging from conflict, or for those with the potential for conflict in the future.
The idea was first studied by Arend Lijphart, who developed this model of power-sharing in the 1960s and noted 4 components that were necessary to create true power-sharing and cooperation: a grand coalition, proportionality, segmental autonomy, and mutual veto.
A grand coalition
At the heart of this power-sharing agreement is executive power-sharing, in Northern Ireland this looks like the following:
- After an election, the party with the most seats chooses the First Minister.
- The largest party from the other community (this would be the Unionists if the Nationalists had appointed the First Minister and vice versa), chooses a Deputy First Minister.
- Both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have equal executive powers.
- There is an Executive Committee (like a Cabinet) made up of both Unionist and Nationalist Ministers.
The proportion of unionist to nationalist Ministers is based on the number of seats each party wins in the election, using the d’Hondt system. As the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister cannot be from the same community, and the executive committee will be compiled of both Unionists and Nationalists, by default every election to the Northern Ireland Assembly has to result in a coalition.
The election of Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) to the Northern Ireland Assembly is done via the proportional Single Transferable Vote. The D’Hondt method is used to allocate positions of power both at the executive level and within the Assembly, e.g., chairs and deputy chairs of committees.
Each community has autonomy over certain cultural issues, for example, the development of Ulster Scots and the Irish language.
Veto rights ‘Petitions of Concern’ are given to the community with the minority of MLAs, this is to ensure that minorities are protected against any potential detrimental legislature. Any 30 MLAs can submit a petition at any stage which triggers a vote to veto the bill, it only takes 40% of the MLAs registered as Unionists or Nationalists for the veto to pass (this 40% can’t be one party though). Similarly, certain Assembly decisions require cross-community support from a certain percentage of both Nationalist and Unionist members, e.g. election of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker.
Recent events in Northern Ireland
Since February 2022, there has not been a Northern Ireland Assembly, this was triggered by the DUP First Minister Paul Given resigning in protest over the Northern Ireland Protocol. An election was called for May 2022 to try to reinstate a governing body in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin won the election for the first time allowing them to nominate a First Minister. However, the DUP has refused to nominate a Deputy First Minister until “the Northern Ireland Protocol is scrapped or changed”. Due to the grand coalition component of the power-sharing agreement, there can be no Northern Ireland Assembly until the DUP and Sinn Féin both nominate a candidate to the executive level.
Unlike the proportional parliaments in Scotland and Wales, Northern Ireland’s political system is intentionally designed to make it impossible for one side to win. From forcing the leaders of the different communities to work together, to allowing either side to veto legislation they don’t like, the Northern Ireland Assembly is built to only pass laws that are widely supported across the divide.