February 5, 2024

How Does Power-Sharing Work in Northern Ireland?

Everything you need to know about Northern Ireland's unique political system
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How Does Northern Ireland’s Power-Sharing Work?

  • Power-sharing ensures that there are representatives in Northern Ireland’s government from both the unionist community - those that want Northern Ireland to stay part of the United Kingdom - and the nationalist community - who would like to unify with the Republic of Ireland.
  • Northern Ireland elects 90 members to the Northern Ireland Assembly every five years (5 members from 18 constituencies).
  • A First Minister and deputy First Minister are then appointed — one from the largest unionist party and one from the largest nationalist party (First Minister goes to the party that receives the most seats).
  • Both the First Minister and the deputy First Minister have equal powers and if one resigns the other must also resign.
  • The Northern Ireland Assembly is unable to sit if one party decides to not appoint a First or deputy First Minister.
  • This has led to the Northern Ireland Assembly being suspended for 10 years of its 25-year existence, most recently from May 2022 until last Saturday.
  • Currently the largest nationalist party is Sinn Féin and the largest unionist party is the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party).
  • Northern Ireland’s cabinet is known as the Northern Ireland Executive.
  • It is responsible for the portfolios of health, the economy, education, justice, infrastructure, energy, and the environment - other powers such as defence remain with Westminster.
  • The Executive is appointed from both unionist, nationalist, and non-aligned parties (proportionate to the amount of seats won by each party).
  • In the newly appointed 2024 Northern Ireland Executive, Sinn Féin has four ministers, the DUP three, Alliance two, and Ulster Unionist one.

What is the History of Power-Sharing?

  • Northern Ireland was established in 1921 following the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), when the rest of Ireland became an independent state.
  • Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom and this led to division amongst the unionist (largely protestant) and nationalist (largely Catholic) communities. Tensions brewed for decades and turned to violence in 1960.
  • From 1960-1998 both sides carried out terrorist attacks and other forms of violence, this period was known as The Troubles.
  • These Troubles ended in 1998 with the historic signing of the Good Friday Agreement, establishing power-sharing, releasing prisoners, and bringing peace to Northern Ireland.
  • British Prime Minister Tony Blair and  Republic of Ireland leader Bertie Ahern were instrumental in negotiating the deal.
  • The old Northern Ireland parliament was strongly majoritarian and thus the government was heavily dominated by unionists/protestants.
  • Power-sharing is a consociational model of democracy originally identified by political scientist Arend Lijphart. It is specifically designed to help with the governing of communities that are emerging from (or with the potential for) conflict.
  • A form of consociational democracy has also been used in Belgium, Switzerland, Israel, Fiji, and Lebanon.

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