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Between January 2017 and January 2020, there was neither a fully functioning Assembly nor Executive in Northern Ireland. 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. Nor did Westminster introduce “Direct Rule”, although this was urged by some in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That would have required fresh primary legislation.

In Northern Ireland politics, Direct Rule is the administration of Northern Ireland directly by the Government of the United Kingdom rather than by devolved government. Apart from a short period in 1974, it was in place for 27 years between 1972 and 1999 and has since then been temporarily applied during suspensions of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The most recent period of Direct Rule came to an end on 8 May 2007 when power was restored to the Assembly following April elections and the 2006 St Andrews Agreement.

The primary purpose of Direct Rule is to provide political direction. In 1972, this was transferred from the Governor and Government of Northern Ireland to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Another main feature is the use of Orders in Council to legislate in “transferred” (or devolved) areas. This use of secondary legislation has in the past led to criticism that Direct Rule does not allow for sufficient scrutiny of government proposals and decisions relating to Northern Ireland.

This briefing paper examines the main features of Direct Rule and looks at its two main periods of operation – 1972-98 and 2002-07 – in greater depth.

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