Equipping Christians for the 2016 Elections

Northern Ireland – How Does It Work

Stormont small 2'election' word picNI Chamber

How Does it Work?


The Northern Ireland Assembly

The Election

How the Northern Ireland Assembly works

The Northern Ireland Assembly, which was restored in 1999 following the Good Friday Agreement, is the devolved legislature for Northern Ireland. It consists of one chamber, and has power to legislate in a variety of policy areas that are not explicitly reserved to the Westminster Parliament, and to appoint the Northern Ireland Executive. It sits at the Stormont Parliament Buildings in Belfast. The Assembly is based on the principle of power-sharing to ensure that Northern Ireland’s largest political communities, unionist and nationalist, both participate in governing the region.


The Assembly has the power to enact legislation in areas where power has been transferred to it from the Westminster Parliament. At the current time the Assembly has the ability to legislate in a wide range of areas including Health, Education, Culture, Justice and the Environment.

Powers reserved by Westminster are divided into ‘excepted matters’, which it retains indefinitely, and ‘reserved matters’, which may be transferred to the competence of the Assembly at a future date. Legislation may be proposed by Executive Ministers or by Private Members. The majority of legislation considered by the Assembly is proposed by Executive Ministers, but a number of significant Private Members Bills have been passed by the Assembly in recent terms.


108 MLAs are elected to sit in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Currently there is one MLA per 11,000 constituents (approx). The upcoming Assembly election will be the last election where 108 members are elected as the number of seats per constituency is due to fall from six to five for future elections.

How the Assembly Relates to the Northern Ireland Executive

The Northern Ireland Executive is made up of members elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Executive is responsible for exercising the executive powers granted to Northern Ireland under the 1998 Northern Ireland Act. The Executive decides on a Programme for Government for an Assembly term, agrees on legislation which should go forward to the Assembly and decides the budget for different Executive Departments on an annual basis. It usually meets on a fortnightly basis.

The Northern Ireland Executive is structured in a very different way from the other devolved administrations in the UK. The Executive operates as a mandatory coalition rather than a voluntary one. What this means is that the political parties who have enough seats to obtain Executive seats do not have to agree with one another on a programme for Government before they can take their seats. This is not the case in Scotland or Wales. The number of seats that a Party is entitled to in the Executive is determined by the number of seats that party won at the Assembly election.

The First and Deputy First Minister are nominated by the largest and second largest parties and they chair the Northern Ireland Executive.

A formula, known as the D’Hondt formula, is used to decide how many Executive Departments each party will receive and in what order they get to pick the available Departments. A political party which is entitled to take up an Executive position can decide not to do so and to remain outside of the Executive. Currently, there are 12 Executive Departments. However, following the 2016 Election this is falling to 9, with three Departments being abolished and their functions transferred to other Departments.

How laws are passed

  • First Stage: A Minister or Member introduces the Bill to the Assembly.
  • Second Stage: This is the first opportunity for all MLAs to debate the general principles of the Bill. At the end of the debate, MLAs vote to decide whether to agree to the Bill’s Second Stage.
  • Committee Stage: This involves detailed consideration of the Bill. The Committee normally takes evidence from interested bodies and individuals, and discuss possible amendments.
  • Consideration Stage: The Bill is debated by the whole Assembly. MLAs vote on each clause and proposed amendments.
  • Further Consideration Stage: This is the final opportunity to amend the Bill. This time the debate is limited solely to new amendments. If there are no amendments, there is no debate.
  • Final Stage: Members debate and vote on whether to pass the Bill.
  • Royal Assent: Following all its stages in the Assembly, a Bill must receive Royal Assent before it can become an Act of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Cross Community Support Mechanisms

Certain resolutions brought before the Assembly must receive ‘cross community support’, or the support of a minimum number of MLAs from both communities, to be passed by the Assembly.

Every MLA officially designates themselves as nationalist, unionist or other. The election of the Speaker, any changes to the standing orders and the adoption of certain money bills, all require cross-community support.

Any vote taken by the Assembly can be made dependent on cross-community support if a petition of concern is presented to the Speaker. A petition of concern requires the backing of at least 30 MLAs to be considered. In such cases, a vote on proposed legislation will only pass if supported by a weighted majority (60%) of members voting, including at least 40% of each of the nationalist and unionist designations present and voting. This effectively means that, provided enough MLAs from a given community agree, that community (or a sufficiently large number of MLA’s from that community) can exercise a veto over the Assembly’s decisions.

To find out more about the Northern Ireland Assembly please visit:  www.niassembly.gov.uk

To find out more about the Northern Ireland Executive please visit:  www.northernireland.gov.uk


Election Day


What happens on Election Day?

On this day, 108 MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) will be elected to make up a new Assembly.

When will it take place?

Northern Ireland Assembly elections will take place on 5 May 2016.

Where will I vote?

There are 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland, voting will take place in each. To see which candidates are standing for election in your constituency and find a polling station, click here. You can also apply to vote by proxy, having someone vote on your behalf, or by post.

How will it work?

Six MLAs will be elected from each constituency. MLAs are elected on the basis of Proportional Representation (PR). This means that candidates with the highest proportion of votes will win a seat in the Assembly.

By way of Single Transferrable Vote (STV), voters mark the candidates in order of preference (although you do not have to state a preference for all candidates). Each voter has only one vote which will then transfer from their first preference to their second preference and so on depending on whether your preferred candidate has already secured enough votes or simply has no chance of being elected. This means your vote goes further and you have greater choice in your representation.

Who will be in government?

In Northern Ireland, we have a mandatory coalition government which means that ministerial seats in the Executive are allocated based on the number of seats a party gains in the Assembly elections. This results in power sharing between the main parties in the province, with no majority or opposition.