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The devolution settlement in Northern Ireland is, as the academic Colin Knox observed in 2010, “inextricably linked to the divisive issues which precipitated its inception and characterise its operation in practice”. Furthermore, as others have written, in Northern Ireland “more than any other part of the United Kingdom, devolution remains a process”.

That process began in 1921, when executive and legislative power was first devolved to the newly created Northern Ireland, making it the only part of the UK to have experience of devolution prior to 1999.

Although Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions resemble those of Scotland and Wales there are three important differences:

  • Northern Ireland’s devolution settlement is underpinned by an international treaty, the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
  • The devolution settlement in Northern Ireland has been less stable than that in other parts of the UK, with frequent suspensions or periods of deadlock.
  • The UK Government and Parliament more frequently legislate on matters devolved to Northern Ireland, usually when its institutions are not fully functioning but also, on occasion, when they are.

This briefing paper sets out the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland as it stands, before revisiting the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and charting subsequent legislation and political events since that date.

Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions have not been fully functioning since the Democratic Unionist Party politician Paul Givan announced his resignation as First Minister on 3 February 2022.

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