Devolution in Northern Ireland, 1998-2020

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The Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive were restored on 11 January 2020, more than three years after they collapsed in January 2017. The Assembly elected on 2 March 2017 was not formally suspended, as in the past, and Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) continued to carry out a range of activities, most significantly constituency work. The next Assembly election is due to take place in May 2022.

The devolution settlement in Northern Ireland is, as the academic Colin Knox put it 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. At that point, the Scotland Act 1998, Government of Wales Act 1998 and Northern Ireland Act 1998 transformed the UK’s territorial constitution.

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

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