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The NI assembly

The Northern Ireland Assembly was established following the signing of the Belfast Agreement (also known as the ‘Good Friday’ Agreement because it was signed on that day). The Agreement was the result of extended talks between the political parties in Northern Ireland and the Governments of the United Kingdom and Ireland. The talks covered how Northern Ireland should be governed in the future to ensure that the aspirations of all communities could be democratically accommodated. The Agreement was signed on 10 April 1998.

The electorate of Northern Ireland endorsed the Belfast Agreement in a referendum held on 22 May 1998. This paved the way for new legislation (the Northern Ireland Act 1998) which defined the future institutions of government in Northern Ireland, and for collaboration between the governments of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The referendum was followed by elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, on 25 June 1998, when 108 Members were elected using the single transferable vote form of proportional representation. Six members were returned from each of Northern Ireland’s 18 Westminster constituencies. Those elected are known as Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs).

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NI Assembly

The ‘new Northern Ireland Assembly’ first met in ‘shadow’ form, i.e. without powers of government, on 1st July 1998 to prepare for government. The new Assembly continued to operate in ‘shadow’ form until, at midnight on 1st December 1999, powers of government were devolved to it by the United Kingdom Parliament. Following this, the Northern Ireland Assembly (the word ‘new’ being dropped from the name) could govern Northern Ireland in respect of ‘transferred matters’, and also ‘reserved matters’ with the Secretary of State’s consent. Excepted matters remain the responsibility of the United Kingdom Parliament:

  • Transferred Matters: e.g Education, health and agriculture;
  • Reserved Matters: e.g Policing and criminal law, which could be transferred to the Assembly at a later date;
  • Excepted Matters: Matters of national importance – such as, defence, taxation and foreign policy.
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NI Assembly

The first meeting of the new Northern Ireland Assembly took place in Castle Buildings, a Civil Service building located within the Stormont Estate. The second and subsequent meetings were held in Parliament Buildings, its present home.

The second election to the Northern Ireland Assembly was on the 26 November 2003. Currently, there are 7 political parties represented in the Assembly and one independent Member who reflect the wide and diverse views and political opinion of the electorate of Northern Ireland.

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What Power do the NI assembly have?

The Assembly has full executive and legislative authority for all "transferred" matters.

Executive powers are concerned with the administration of public services – health, education, social security, environment, etc. and are discharged by the Government Departments (the Civil Service). The Assembly delegates its executive powers to an Executive Committee made up of a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and one Minister for each of the 10 Government Departments. Members of the Executive Committee are appointed from the 108 MLAs according to party strengths.

The Executive Committee brings forward proposals for new legislation, in the form of ‘Executive Bills’, for consideration by the Assembly. It also sets out a Programme for Government each year, with an agreed budget for approval by the Assembly.

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How does the assembly carry out its role?

The Assembly carries out its work in Plenary (full) meetings of the Assembly and by the work of its Statutory, Standing and Ad Hoc Committees.

Plenary meetings of the Assembly are usually held twice a week (on Mondays and Tuesdays) in the Assembly Chamber.

Statutory Committees were established under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Each of the 10 Statutory Committees shadows a Northern Ireland Government Department. They have the power to examine, debate and recommend changes to the policies and decisions of the Departments. This includes, for example, how money is shared and spent by Departments and any new legislation proposed by the Executive. The Committees can initiate Legislation.

The Statutory Committees may also carry out independent investigations into any current issues that Ministers may be considering. This can involve asking organisations and people in the community to provide information.

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How does the assembly carry out it's role?

The Assembly can also set up Ad Hoc Committees that last only as long as they are needed to do a specific piece of work e.g. review of life sentences and proceeds of crime.

Office Holders: Committee Chairs, and those who wish to act as members of the various Committees, are appointed using a selection system that ensures each Assembly party is represented according to the votes it received in the election. The 11 Members of each Statutory Committee, including the Chair and Deputy Chair, are also appointed in a way that reflects party representation in the Assembly, and the Chair and Deputy Chair do not normally belong to the same political party as the relevant Departmental Minister.

Six Standing Committees were established by the Assembly to assist it in its work. They look at issues such as finance, procedures, and the business of the Assembly. The Committee of the Centre, although a Standing Committee, operates in the same way as a Statutory Committee and shadows certain aspects of the work of the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister.

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Voting Systems in Assembly

 Most decisions of the Assembly are taken by a simple majority of those voting. However, some decisions require cross-community support including:

  • The election of the Speaker, First Minister and Deputy First Minister
  • Any change to the Assembly’s ‘Standing Orders’ (i.e. the procedural rules developed by the Assembly itself), and
  • A motion to exclude a Minister from office.

Since power was devolved to Northern Ireland the Assembly has been suspended a number of times. During suspension the Secretary of State assumes responsibility for the direction of the Northern Ireland Departments.

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How does the Assembly make laws?

 The Assembly has the power to enact primary legislation for Northern Ireland. Primary legislation takes the form of ‘Acts’. Proposals for (or draft) legislation are referred to as "Bills" until approved by the Assembly, accepted by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and given Royal Assent to become an Act.

Ministers, Committees and individual Members can propose a Bill to the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly for consideration by the Assembly. If the Speaker is content that the proposals are within the Assembly’s competence the Bill is then introduced and debated in the Chamber and scrutinised by the appropriate Statutory Committee. The Committee reports back to the Assembly allowing Members to consider the detail of the Bill and to propose amendments. It is then considered further by the Assembly and a final vote is taken.

If approved, the Speaker will ask the Secretary of State to seek Royal Assent to enable the Bill to become an Act of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

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The Good Friday Agreement

The ‘Belfast Agreement’ or ‘Good Friday Agreement’ was signed on 10 April 1998 by the British and Irish Governments.

The majority of political parties in Northern Ireland supported the Agreement, which was the culmination of a ‘peace process’ designed to address the issues that had given rise to conflict in Northern Ireland over the previous 30 years.

After the Agreement was endorsed by a majority of the electorate in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive Committee were established, together with ‘North-South’ and ‘East West’ institutions.

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St Andrews Agreement

The St Andrews Agreement, reached on 13 October 2006, was an agreement between the British and Irish Governments and political parties in Northern Ireland. 

 It led to the establishment of the Transitional Assembly, to prepare for the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly (suspended since 14 October 2002).

After the election of 7 March 2007, devolved powers were restored on 8 May 2007.

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Executive committee

The Executive Committee is the ‘Cabinet’ or ‘Government’ of Northern Ireland which is appointed from the Assembly.

It introduces new laws and oversees their implementation. It prioritises Government proposals and plans, producing an annual Programme for Government and Budget, to be agreed by the Assembly.

The Executive Committee consists of the First Minister, the deputy First Minister (assisted by 2 Junior Ministers) and 11 Ministers appointed to take responsibility for Departments.

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What is the role of the MLA?

1.       Representation- to represent his or her constituents, ask questions to ministers and Office of the first minister/ Deputy first minster, write letters, hold surgeries in constituency, email and phone complain about public bodies and lobbying.

2.       Legislation- pass legislation in statutory committees controlled by Whips in debates and in statutory committees as there is no formal opposition, this role can be difficult. We now have 11 Ministers and OFM/DFM so the opposition is even smaller.  Government will look to MLAS to recruit into the government.

3.       Scrutiny- the MLA has 4 areas to scrutinise the executive:

·         Statutory committe, Question time, Debates, Inquiries and reports

Examples of this would be the 11+, student fees and fiancé, the NI budget, Iris Robinson scandal, City airport runway extension, policing and parades commission.

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2011 Election results





+/- Seats

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NI Executive 2011

Finance minister – Sammy Wilson

Enterprise Minister- Arlene Foster

Health Minister- Edwin Poots

Social development Minster- Nelson McCausland

Junior Minister- Jonathan Bell   Junior Minister- Martina Anderson

Education Minister- John O’Dowd

Agriculture Minster- Michelle O’Neil

Culture Minister- Caral Ni Chuilin

Employment and Learning Minister- Stephen Farry

Policing & Justice Minster- David Forde

Regional development Minister- Danny Kennedy

Environment Minister- Alex Atwood

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The Democratic Unionist Party is the larger of the two main unionist political parties in Northern Ireland. Founded by Ian Paisley and currently led by Peter Robinson, it is currently the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the fourth-largest party in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom.

The DUP has strong links to Protestant churches, particularly the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, the church Paisley founded, and is considered a Protestant political party.

Following on from the St Andrews Agreement in October 2006, the DUP has agreed with the Irish republican party Sinn Féin to enter into power-sharing devolved government in Northern Ireland. In the aftermath of the agreement there were reports of divisions within the DUP. Many of its leading members, including Members of Parliament (MPs) Nigel Dodds, David Simpson and Gregory Campbell were claimed to be in opposition to Paisley. All the party's MPs fully signed up to the manifesto for the 2007 Assembly elections, supporting power sharing in principle. An overwhelming majority of the party executive voted in favour of restoring devolution in a meeting in March 2007;

The DUP is the largest party in Northern Ireland, currently holding eight seats at Westminster and 38 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

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The DUP on Major Issues

  • Good Friday agreement - Anti-agreement (Belfast agreement) Think it is “fatally flawed” and want a total re-negotiation.  Still opposed to it but recast the agreement at St Andrews.
  • Powersharing - “No negotiation with unreconstructed terrorists” to 2005. Are now in government with SF since the IRA disbanded/decommissioned
  • Irish Dimesion/ROI - No Irish dimension. NSMC met 63 times, BIC 10 times. DUP annoyed at imbalance. Still oppose further cooperation between North and South. No Euro. Anti-Europe.
  • Policing & justice- Preferred RUC to PSNI and wanted to keep Special branch however, fought hard to reject the Patten report. Do sit on DPPs to support the PSNI
  • Symbols - Support the Union Flag and wants them to fly. Opposed ban on British symbols in Courts
  • Decommissioning- Wanted and got disbandment of the IRA. There has been decommissioning of most loyalist paramilitaries. Dissident Republicans such as Real IRA/CIRA still have weapons.
  • Suspensions - Blames suspensions on lack of decommissioning and UUP split.
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DUP Issues

  • Issues 2007-2010 - Working in government with SF and  opposing the end of the 11 plus, the extension of policing powers to NI so soon, victims commissioners, Eames/Bradley, Education 11 plus, health, emigration, top-up fees, environment, dissident republicans and loyalist paramilitaries. DUP challenged by the TUV. European Elections 2009  Jim Allister got  66000 votes! A real electoral threat to the DUP in 2007? TUV stood against the DUP in the General election 2010. TUV lost out and DUP were not damaged.
  • Hillsbourgh Agreement - Impact of Hillsborough on DUP. Main issue Policing and justice, relations between the Justice Minster and the Executive. Rev Ian Paisley did not stand again for his Westminster seat in North Antrim, his son Ian Paisley Junior won the seat against Jim Allister TUV. Parading is still a key issue 
  • 2010 general election DUP leader Peter Robinson loses his East Belfast seat as an MP to Naomi Long of the Alliance Party.
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The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) – sometimes referred to as the Official Unionist Party (OUP) or, in a historic sense, simply the Unionist Party – is the more moderate of the two main unionist political parties in Northern Ireland.

 Before the split in unionism in the late 1960s, when the former Protestant Unionist Party began to attract more hardline support away from the UUP, it governed Northern Ireland between 1921 and 1972 as the sole major unionist party. It continued to be supported by most unionist voters throughout the period known as the Troubles.

The UUP has lost support among Northern Ireland's unionist and Protestant community to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in successive elections at all levels of government since 1999. The party is currently led by Tom Elliott.

In 2009 the party agreed to an electoral alliance with the Conservative Party and the two parties fielded joint candidates for elections to the House of Commons and the European Parliament under the banner of "Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force"

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  • Good Friday agreement - Officially support it but there was an internal split (Donaldson left etc.) Causing major divisions
  • Powersharing - Support it but are worried about SF. Wanted to be democratic and give SF enough rope to hang themselves in govt. Better in govt. than terrorising. Guns before Government.
  • Irish Dimesion/ROI - Supportive but want the NSMC minimised. (ban on SF ministers case study)
  • Policing & justice- Fought hard to keep RUC and Special Branch. Opposed Patten like the DUP. UUP have taken seats on DPP to support PSNI.
  • Symbols - Support the Union Flag and wants them to fly. Opposed ban on British symbols in Courts
  • Decommissioning- UUP suspended Stormont 4 times over this issue. 2001 Election at Westminster DUP got more votes and in 2003 NI elections. Want more “transparent” acts of decommissioning. This issue split the party. This let the DUP get all the credit for further acts of decommissioning..
  • Suspensions - Disunited and fragmenting party. Wanted suspensions and Trimble weakened further by DUP election win. Reg Empey becomes leader after 2005 election. Tom Elliott new leader 2010, after collapse of vote for UUP in May election.
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Issues 2007-2010

Restructuring of the UUP.  The UUP Support 11 plus. For the European Elections 2009 the UUP joined forces with the Conservative Party , the Unionist and Conservative- New Force.They are also standing candidates in the Westminster election 2010. The one UUP, MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon  will not stand as a joint candidate. This will mean her running as an independent against the UUP/Conservative joint candidate.UUP is opposed to the devolution of Policing and Justice at this time.The UUP lost the seat. Hermon held it as an independent.

Hillsbourgh Agreement & Assembly Elections 2011

Orange Order have put pressure on to get a resolution of the parading issue. Orange Order have now supported the Alliance leader for Policing and Justice Minister.

Row over SF as First Minister, Tom Elliott targets basil Mc Crea and others in his own party.Mess over health service McGimpsey attacked by other ministers.Oppose the AV reform.

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The Social Democratic and Labour Party SDLP; is a social-democratic, irish nationalist political party in Northern Ireland. Its basic party platform advocates Irish reunification and further devolution of powers while Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom. During the Troubles, the SDLP was the most popular Irish nationalist party in Northern Ireland, but since the Provisional IRA ceasefire in 1994, it lost ground to the republican party Sinn Féin, which in 2001, became the more popular of the two parties for the first time. During the Troubles, the SDLP was distinct from Sinn Féin above all in its rejection of violence, in contrast to Sinn Féin's support for the Provisional IRA.

The SDLP is a social-democratic party affiliated to the Socialist International and Party of European Socialists. The SDLP has fraternal links with other European social democratic parties, including the Irish Labour Party and British Labour Party (neither of which contest elections in Northern Ireland).

The SDLP currently has three MPs in the House of Commons, and 14 MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

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  • Good Friday agreement - They are the GFA, it was written by John Hume. Mark Durkan helped. New Leader Margaret Ritchie 2010, she is  now an MP.
  •  Powersharing - SDLP insisted on this as part of all “attempted solutions
  • Irish Dimesion/ROI - ROI involved in the solution to NI problem – fear of close ties between Unionists and GB
  • Policing & justice- Support for the Patten Report – SDLP wanted to “Destroy the RUC” they do sit on DPPs (District Policing Partnerships).
  • Symbols - Support removal of British symbols in courts; public buildings; police uniforms etc.
  • Decommissioning- Want both IRA and Loyalists to decommission but recognise the democratic will of the people and so are willing to powershare with SF.
  • Suspensions - Main problem for SDLP has been the extraordinary growth in support for SF in all Catholic/Nationalist areas. Class differences.
  • Issues 2006-2010 - Opposed to 11 plus. Support the Victims Commission. Want an Irish language Act. Still losing votes to SF. SDLP has a new leader Margaret Ritchie Jan 2010.They want the Justice job and  opposed David Ford.(Alliance)
  • 2011 Elections - Support the lowering of Corporation Tax, Tuition fees, EMA, Save health service finding, Opposed to the 11 plus, Resist any cuts to public spending, Opposed to water charges, Support the AV reform; (so do Alliance)
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Sinn Féin

Sinn Féin is a left wing, Irish republican political party in Ireland.Originating in the Sinn Féin organisation founded in 1905 by Arthur Griffith, it took its current form in 1970 after a split within the party. Sinn Féin is led by Gerry Adams. The party has historically been associated with the Provisional IRA.

Sinn Féin is currently the second-largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, where it has four ministerial posts in the power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive and these include the departments of OFMDFM, Culture, Arts and Leisure, Agriculture and Rural Development and Education as well as the Junior Minister post. It is the fourth largest party in Dáil Éireann, the parliament of the Republic of Ireland, where it has 14 TDs. In the 2009 European Parliamentary elections the party's candidate in Northern Ireland, Bairbre de Brún, topped the poll, the first time for Sinn Féin in any Northern Ireland election. Sinn Féin also received the most votes of any party in Northern Ireland in the 2010 United Kingdom General Election, although the Democratic Unionist Party won more seats.

Sinn Féin won 178,224 votes in the Northern Ireland Assembly election, 2011 giving them 29 MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly, making them the second largest political party in Northern Ireland.

It is the third largest political party across the island of Ireland with a popular vote of 398,915, combining the Irish general election, 2011 in the Republic of Ireland and the Northern Ireland Assembly election, 2011 in Northern Ireland.

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Sinn Féin

  • Good Friday agreement - Support  the GFA because it helps them in relation to powersharing etc. They see it as a step towards united Ireland through peaceful political means.
  •  Powersharing- Support and want a 32 county Ireland through “consent” and  no longer through violence.-
  • Irish Dimesion/ROI - Support Irish Dimension as much as possible, obviously! This would protect the Nationalist community
  • Policing & justice- Did not sit on on DPPs until further reform of the PSNI/Special Branch took place, in 2007. Part of St Andrews bargain.
  • Symbols - Wanted rid of all British symbols – want an “Equality Agenda”. Their emphasis is on human rights.
  • Decommissioning- Have helped the IRA to do 3 substantial acts of decommissioning. SF encouraged the disbandment of the IRA. International Monitoring Commission has confirmed this. SF are only using peaceful means.
  • Suspensions - Blame Unionists ,DUP and UUP for their disagreements and inability to power share. SF  out polled the SDLP and became the largest Nationalist party in NI. From 2003.
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Sinn Féin

  • Issues 2006-2010 - Response to the Dissident Republicans, Real IRA attacks etc. SF claim that all dissidents are being ‘unpatriotic’. 2007 election SF got 28 seats or 36.2% of the vote.Oppose 11 plus indeed McGuinness abolished it in the Assembly. Support Victim’s Commissioner, Irish language Act, Bill of Rights for NI.


  • What did they get from Hillsborough?

A date for the devolution of Policing and Justice, a joint committee looking at parades, a promise to look again at an Irish Language Act.

  •  2011 Elections - Support the lowering of Corporation Tax, Tuition fees

EMA, Save health service funding, Opposed to the 11 plus, Resist any cuts to public spending, Opposed to water charges & Support the AV reform

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How well do these Statutory Committees scrutinise

  1. What is a Statutory Committee? Committees to examine the work of the OFMDFM plus 11 Statutory Committees which shadow the departments of the Executive Committee. Chairs and deputy Chairs chosen by d’Hondt. Membership reflects the party weighting in the Assembly. Usually 11 members. (GFA/Belfast Agreement NI Act 1998)
  2. Legislative role – primary legislation, secondary legislation, initiate legislation (give one example)
  3. Scrutiny role – inquiries and issue reports, ‘persons, papers and records’(give one example of each)
  4.  Advisory and consultative role- budget(give one example)
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Outcome of GFA

  • § A North/South Ministerial Council to bring together those with executive responsibilities in Northern Ireland and the Irish Governments to develop consultation, co-operation and action within the island of Ireland. All Council decisions must be agreed by the two sides.
  • § A British-Irish Council to exchange information, discuss, consult and use best endeavours to reach agreement on co-operation on matters of mutual interest within the competence of the relevant Administrations. Membership comprises representatives of the British and Irish Governments, devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales together with representatives of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.
  • § A British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference comprising senior representatives from both Governments to promote bilateral co-operation at all levels on matters of mutual interest.
  • § A consultative Civic Forum, comprising representatives of business, trades unions and other civic sectors in Northern Ireland to act as a consultative mechanism on social, economic and cultural issues.

The First Minister and Deputy First Minister acting together nominate Ministers to attend the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council and to report to the Assembly following each meeting of these bodies. They also ensure that the Executive is represented at meetings of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister, acting together, also make arrangements for the operation of the Civic Forum. These arrangements require Assembly approval.

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Assess the effectiveness of the NI Assembly since

  • Representative, legislative and scrutiny roles
  • Assembly which has not existed for very long and which has so many problems. However the fact that it has survived four years without any suspensions is to the credit of all the members of it.
  • 108 elected MLAs who are tasked with passing legislation and scrutinising the Executive.STV increases competition between parties and inside parties to do t he bidding of the voter
  • MLAs are also MPs (16 of the 18 NI MPs), local councillors, and members of their respective political parties. We have home grown representatives in Westminister who live here and know the problems.
  • Good paid for this but the problems over expenses and double or triple salaries has shown the short comings of this and  a PMB put forward by Dawn Purvis, formally of the PUP, has called for an end to this. This was stopped by a ‘petition of concern’ from the DUP.

  • The Problem of MLA's putting party before constituent is still prevalent

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Assess the effectiveness of the NI Assembly since

  • Five party coalition which forms the executive. That makes it difficult to criticise or initiate legislation and to scrutinise the executive thoroughly.
  • The lack of an Opposition makes it unclear if proper scrutiny can take place.
  • Lack of time, budgets have been passed without proper scrutiny
  • Should MLAs do more to pressurise the executive into re prioritising the Programme for Government?
  • 44 bills have passed through to the final stage and have been given royal assent. These have often been the least contentious, such as the Taxis Bill.There have been no bills initiated by Committee and they are slow to pass all the stages. The Committees can call for papers, persons and records, and they do make a lot of noise
  • Executive Committee has failed to tackle many of the key problems facing NI. They have been very good at deferring water charges, freezing rates, free prescriptions and the over 60’s free public transport, Since all the legislation is driven by the executive, the Assembly remains a talking shop with few teeth to take on the executive
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STV & D'Hondt

D'Hondt  - A system of allocating seats according to the number of votes cast and taking account of seats already held by a party. Under the d'Hondt method, votes for a party are always divided by the number of seats they have already attained, plus one. When regional members are elected, the number of constituency seats one in that region are also counted. Therefore each party's number of votes would be divided by the existing seats in the region plus one, and the party with the largest of seats would gain an additional seat. This process would be repeated until all regional seats are allocated - a fuller explanation of this process. In the case of Northern Ireland, parties are entitled to take seats in the Northern Ireland Executive using the d'Hondt system in proportion to the parties' strength in the Assembly

STV - The single transferable vote (STV) is a voting system based on proportional representation and preferential voting. Under STV, an elector's vote is initially allocated to his or her most preferred candidate, and then, after candidates have been either elected or eliminated, any surplus or unused votes are transferred according to the voter's stated preferences. The system minimizes "wasted" votes, provides approximately proportional representation, and enables votes to be explicitly cast for individual candidates rather than for closed party lists. It achieves this by using multi-seat constituencies (voting districts) and by transferring votes to other eligible candidates that would otherwise be wasted on sure losers or sure winners


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Old Sir

A very useful and comprehensive set of revision cards. There are some details missing, but anyone looking for an introduction or overview will find what they need here.

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