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Explaining Politics: Northern Ireland

Following the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement (GFA) referendum receiving 71% of the public vote in Northern Ireland (NI) in April 1998, Northern Irish devolution was ready to take off. Prior to this, like all the other regions of the United Kingdom, the governance of Northern Ireland took place in Westminster. This was an issue that worsened social divisions in Northern Ireland, as one half of the country wished for NI to remain as part of the UK (Unionists), whilst the other half wished for the country to join together with the Republic of Ireland to form a United Ireland (Nationalists). This is a dichotomy that has run throughout Northern Irish history for decades, and still continues nowadays - although it isn't often expressed as violently as it was during The Troubles.

To understand how the political institutions in NI were formed and why they are so important, it is important to look at the social factors at play, most importantly the issue noted above relating to how British or Irish a person perceives themselves. With the signing of the GFA in 1998 and the ushering in of devolution, Northern Ireland was at the very end of the violent Troubles and was ready to begin governing itself. The GFA explores a whole host of issues, and can be accessed here in full. In short, it sets out the systems of governance used in Northern Ireland, as well as guidelines for civil and cultural rights, justice, and relations between the NI Assembly and the British and Irish governments respectively. It set a precedent for a new Northern Ireland, filled with positivity that both sides of the community could be well represented.

Political Institutions

As well as having foundations in the GFA, the institutions of governance in NI are based on Arend Lijphart's theory of consociational democracy. This is a form of democracy to be used in deeply divided societies, such as Northern Ireland, and focuses on ways to stabilise such fractured societies. This creates a system known as power-sharing. In NI, the four pillars of consociationalism form the governmental institutions as such:

1. Grand Coalition

This clause relates to a coalition consisting of multiple political parties, as opposed to the common coalitions of two parties. In Northern Ireland, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister have equal powers, as opposed to governance in Westminster wherein the Prime Minister holds all official executive power. Together, the First and Deputy First Minister form the Office of First and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM). Each of these leaders is chosen from the largest parties in government, typically one Unionist party and one Nationalist party. Currently, Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is First Minister, while Michelle O'Neill of Sinn Fein is the de facto Deputy First Minister.

2. Proportionality

Northern Ireland uses a form of Proportional Representation (PR) called Single Transferrable Vote (STV) as it's voting system. This voting system is used in elections to the Stormont Assembly (90 seats) as well as other elections, such as local council elections. STV works well in a divided society such as NI, as it ensures representation for all sectors of society, as the strength of the parties typically matches the strength of their support throughout the country. To further this equal representation, executive ministers and committee chairs are chosen through a system called D'Hondt. Basically, this system ensures that ministerial positions are granted relative to how well a party does during an election - for example, the party with the most popular support will gain the most ministerial positions.

3. Mutual Veto

Under consociationalism, a mutual veto is guaranteed between minority and majority groups to ensure equality. A key pillar of the mutual veto in NI is the petition of concern. Upon entering the Stormont Assembly, Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) must designate themselves relative to their identity (i.e. Nationalist, Unionist, Other). This has faced much criticism in and of itself, but even more so when it comes to the petition of concern. On a contentious issue where the chamber can't agree, 30 MLAs from the same designation may bring forward a petition of concern to block the legislation. Put simply, this is a mechanism supposed to be used to support equality between minority and majority groups. However, in recent years it has been argued that the mechanism should be abandoned due to its misuse on social issues, such as same-sex marriage and abortion reform.

4. Segmented Autonomy

Put simply, this strand of consociationalism means that each group in society has it's own amount of independence. In Northern Ireland, this mostly relates to cultural aspects, such as language rights i.e. the Irish language and Ulster-Scots.

Where are we now?


As of the time of writing, Northern Ireland has been without a functioning government for 897 days (2.5 years). This statistic is upheld by the aptly named website, 'How Long Has Northern Ireland Not Had A Government'. Power-sharing broke down in 2017 as a result of a dispute between the two main parties, DUP and Sinn Fein, over a renewable energy scheme known as RHI. The main political parties are currently in talks to restore power-sharing government.