Audit 2017: How democratic are the institutions of devolved government in Northern Ireland?

Devolved government in Northern Ireland centres around unique institutions, a power-sharing Executive with ministers chosen on a proportional basis, answering to an Assembly elected using PR. It was designed to overcome the intercommunal strife that has characterised Northern Ireland public life: the challenges it has faced have been particularly acute, and its record has, inevitably, been mixed. At the time of writing it is in abeyance for want of political agreement, which may not be found – at least in the short term. At present there is no political control at all over the Northern Ireland administration. As part of the 2017 Audit of UK DemocracyAlan Whysall and the Democratic Audit team explore how democratically and effectively the institutions of government have performed in Northern Ireland.

lion stormont

The lion that sits at the base of a lamppost outside the Parliament buildings at Stormont. Photo: Northern Ireland Assembly via a CC-BY-ND 2.0 licence

This article was published as part of our 2017 Audit of UK democracy. We have now published: The UK’s Changing Democracy: The 2018 Democratic Audit with LSE Press, available in all ebook formats. You can download the whole book for free, and individual chapters, including a fully revised version of this article.

What does democracy require of Northern Ireland’s devolved Assembly and Executive?

There is a long history of community division within Northern Ireland, which is reflected in voting behaviour. Given this, since the constitutional issue – whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK or join a united Ireland – ceased to dominate political life, there has been wide agreement that in order to be able to function, government needs to be acceptable across the community. In practice this means guaranteeing that parties from each side of the community can participate in government, engaging their political energies and obliging them to work together.

But as devolution became established, there has been a growing focus on how the system measures up against more conventional criteria for effective democratic government, such as:

  • The Executive should be able to set out a coherent vision across the range of devolved responsibilities, and develop and implement a practical and effective set of policies in pursuit of it
  • It should in particular tackle cogently the most acute problems of the economy and society, and be capable of responding decisively to events
  • It should provide efficient and effective public services
  • The Assembly should effectively hold the Executive accountable, through conditional support or reasoned opposition, drawing out views and expertise within different parts of the community to improve policy-making, the delivery of public services and the quality of legislation
  • All involved in the institutions should act in the wider public interest, and in particular should practice financial regularity and prudence, and avoid the reality or the appearance of corruption
  • The institutions should be recognised by the voting public as meeting these criteria, and as articulating and responding to their concerns

Since the institutions remain fragile, however, democracy also requires a degree of outside stewardship, notably from the British government, but also the Irish government and others, to help keep them functioning.

In Northern Ireland, the criteria for democratic governance are rather different from elsewhere. For the whole of its 96 year existence as a distinct political entity, the great bulk of voters have backed “tribal” parties, unionist and nationalist. In consequence, the operation of traditional Westminster rules, transplanted to Northern Ireland in the 1920s, led to 50 years of government by the Ulster Unionist Party alone. Nationalists in response denied the legitimacy of any government arrangements in Northern Ireland, arguing it was an entity contrived to sustain Unionist rule.

This system collapsed in 1972 following a campaign of abstentions and protests, and physical violence by some groups. More than 30 years of direct rule by Westminster followed. Devolved government definitively resumed in 2007 under arrangements set out in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, lightly modified by subsequent agreements. The GFA provides for much besides internal government arrangements: under it, inter alia, Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, whether within the United Kingdom or a united Ireland – the dominant issue in its politics for 70 years – is established as depending on consent, with provision for “border polls” to test it; there are guarantees of parity of esteem for the British and Irish identities, and for upholding equality and rights; there are elaborate arrangements for wider relationships, in particular those within the island of Ireland. These, as much as the shape of the domestic institutions, are important elements of the political equation underlying the settlement.

The essence of the new devolved government arrangements has been:

  • An Assembly, now of 90 members, is elected using a proportional voting system called Single Transferable vote (STV), discussed here in a separate blog. Its members designate themselves nationalist, unionist or other.
  • A First Minister is nominated by the largest party in the Assembly, and a deputy First Minister by the largest party composed of members of the largest designation apart from the FM’s; so in present circumstances there will be a unionist and nationalist. The FM and DFM exercise their powers jointly and equally.
  • The post of Justice Minister is because of its special sensitivities selected by a cross-community vote in the Assembly; it has been held by the Alliance Party (2010-16) and an independent Unionist (2016-17).
  • The remainder of the places in the power-sharing Executive, a further seven, is allocated among those parties in the Assembly wishing to take them up, in proportion to the number of seats they hold in the Assembly, using the d’Hondt system. Because any party of sufficient size may thus participate as of right, the Executive is sometimes spoken of as a “mandatory coalition”.

Across the political spectrum there is agreement that Northern Ireland circumstances require some arrangements to ensure acceptability of government across the community. Some disagree that the current ones are the right way of achieving the objective, though no major party presses for significant change to structures at present.

Recent developments

Devolution has functioned in a somewhat rocky way following its resumption in 2007. A succession of political crises have threatened its survival.

The 2016 Assembly elections were held on the basis of the ‘Fresh Start’ agreement between DUP and SF (who provided the First Minister and deputy First Minister). The smaller parties, who had been in the Executive previously, now moved into opposition, for which new provision had been made. The DUP and SF maintained a public appearance at least of working together until late 2016. At that point serious and costly failings in a Renewable Heat Incentive scheme became public. The scheme had been introduced by the First Minister, Arlene Foster, in a previous role; around it there were (still unproven) rumours of corruption. It provoked much controversy. Sinn Féin eventually withdrew from the Executive, which led to the calling of a further Assembly election for 2 March.

Below the surface, it became clear, more fundamental tensions had been building within the Executive. Partly this was over the DUP’s attitudes to nationalism, and the Irish identity more generally. Aggravating the tensions was Brexit, on which the DUP and Sinn Féin were at odds with each other, and Sinn Féin with the British government. 

Brexit and Northern Ireland

In the Brexit referendum last year, on a turnout of 62% (lower than any other UK region), Northern Ireland voters chose to remain, by 56% to 44% (a smaller margin than Scotland or London, the two other Remain regions). The DUP campaigned to leave; the other main parties, Sinn Féin and the SDLP, Alliance and the Ulster Unionists, to remain. The great majority of nationalists who voted appear to have favoured remain, although turnout was exceptionally low in some nationalist areas; a proportion of Unionists also did so. The DUP position now appears to be in favour of a hard Brexit, in line with its traditional antipathy to Europe; whilst also opposing restrictions on freedom of movement within the island of Ireland (2017 Westminster manifesto, section 6).

Nationalists fear these objectives are incompatible, and point to the possibility of controls of various sorts on the border being reintroduced, after several decades during which it has been scarcely visible. The British government’s recent proposals say there should be no physical infrastructure on the border. But their feasibility is widely doubted, some seeing them as a device to transfer blame for a border made inevitable by a hard Brexit. Any such development is liable to be acutely sensitive politically – manifestations of a border within the island of Ireland are anathema to nationalists.

There are also potentially very significant economic consequences to Brexit, for both parts of the island, and perhaps also consequences for justice cooperation within it. And the tensions here are putting strains on the partnership between the British and Irish governments, which has been the motor of the peace process.

The 2017 Assembly election

Table 1: The outcomes of the March 2017 Assembly election

PartyHistorically seen asVote %Assembly seats (%)Executive posts (2016-17)
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)‘More hardline’ unionist party28.128 (31%)4
Sinn Féin (SF)‘More hardline’ nationalist party27.927 (30%)4
Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP)‘More moderate’ nationalist party12.012 (13%)
Ulster Unionist Party (UUP)‘More moderate’ unionist party12.610 (11%)
Alliance Party (AP)Centrist, with support from all parts of the community7.78 (9%)
GreenEnvironmentalist, also with mixed support2.72
TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice)Very hardline unionist, opposed to the present structures2.61
PBP (People before profit)Left, non-sectarian1.81
Independent UnionistPersonal candidature11
All parties100.0909

The March 2017 election was a divisive one. And the results marked a significant change in the Northern Ireland political landscape. The nationalist vote, which had been flagging in recent elections, strongly revived, and for the first time unionist parties lost the overall majority they had enjoyed in all previous assemblies, with only one seat more than nationalists. There was also some movement from both Unionist parties, which did relatively badly, to the Alliance party, which did particularly well.

The Westminster election of June 2017

Attempts to resume devolved government following the Assembly election had failed to produce any result by the time the UK general election was called. Westminster elections in Northern Ireland as elsewhere use plurality voting (or first past the post) ,which favours larger parties.

This election was also particularly polarising, the sense of being under threat on each side of the community driving people back to traditional voting patterns. The DUP improved on its performance at the Assembly elections to elect 10 MPs (55% of seats, on only 36% of the vote), and Sinn Féin gained seven MPs (39% of seats, on 29% of the vote), with one Independent Unionist.

The middle ground suffered severely: the UUP and SDLP lost all their seats. Since Sinn Féin do not as a matter of principle take their Westminster seats, this means that Irish nationalism is unrepresented in the House of Commons for the first time in centuries.

Lacking a Commons majority, the Conservative party concluded a ‘Confidence and Supply’ agreement with the DUP, involving £1 billion in extra public spending for Northern Ireland. The spending plans themselves have not been criticised on partisan grounds, indeed they received some welcome even from nationalists; but the Conservatives’ dependence on the DUP has caused questioning of their ability to be an honest broker among Northern Ireland parties.

Further efforts to resume devolved government following the election have so far been unsuccessful. Northern Ireland at present has no ministers – the devolved ones have gone, and UK ones have no legal authority over the Northern Ireland administration. There is no budget for the current financial year – some money can still be committed under an emergency procedure but ultimately at lower levels than last year. The statutory deadline for the Secretary of State to call a further Assembly election has passed. Political negotiations will resume after the summer. 

Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats (SWOT) analysis

Since efforts continue to re-establish devolved government, this analysis focuses largely on its performance. But because the foundations of the Northern Ireland system, unlike those in Scotland and Wales, are fragile, the ability of outsiders, notably the British and Irish governments, to intervene is also important to the soundness of democratic arrangements.

Current strengthsCurrent weaknesses
In the historical perspective the institutions have been an enormous success, leading to a degree of working across the community that was unthinkable 20 years ago. They permitted the establishment of a government locally accountable to Northern Ireland voters that had not been possible before. The core institutions have been beset by regular political turbulence, have at times in the past seemed near to collapse, and have been completely inoperative for a number of months this year. Consequently they have not provided all the social and economic stability that might have been hoped.
The political settlement also paved the way to cross community acceptance of policing. Given the acute social conflicts that went before, this is a remarkable advance. The Executive has had limited success in tackling the serious economic and social problems that beset Northern Ireland. For example the private sector economy remains very small, and has declining relative competitiveness. Northern Ireland is dependent on public spending – at levels per head higher than those of any other UK region. Public services are seriously struggling – significantly more in the case of health, for example, than in England.
Power-sharing devolved government has made it much harder for paramilitaries on both sides of the sectarian divide to thrive, although on a much reduced scale they continue to be active, in occasional limited terrorism and more prevalent gangsterism.Despite a general commitment to the principle of a ‘shared future’, Northern Ireland society is still in parts seriously tainted with sectarianism. Issues from the past remain unresolved, and are at times a political irritant. For example over ‘legacy’ issues from the time of Troubles; over flying of flags and other symbols, which created a crisis in government in 2012 in some local councils.
During the time of the new institutions, most of the remaining inter-community conflicts at street-level have disappeared. In political life and the media, there has often seemed to be a lack of interest in good government and in policy-making. The traditional bones of inter-community contention have been a more attractive focus of attention. The Renewable Heat Initiative affair in its early stages is a good example of lack of scrutiny.
More broadly, the new institutions at first generated a spirit of optimism and rebuilding that made much social progress possible. There have been episodes of serious budgetary disorder before the present one. They have not always been regarded as matters of fundamental concern – perhaps in part because new money from the Treasury has often been forthcoming as part of a rescue package.
There has also been some economic success, in particular a good record in securing foreign direct investment. And unemployment is well down from the very high levels once found in Northern Ireland.The Executive has been frequently unable to make decisions, in large part because the way that it is constituted means that it lacks common purpose. Although it has adopted substantial Programmes for Government, they have lacked political traction.
People in Northern Ireland do not seem excessively troubled by political difficulties: personal well-being measures are well above the UK national average.The Assembly has overall been of limited effectiveness in its scrutiny of government policy or service delivery, has rarely come forward proactively with ideas of its own, and such formal opposition as there has been has tended towards the destructive, rather than the constructive.
There is limited civic society involvement in public dialogue in Northern Ireland: many people keep their heads down. Nor is there much contribution to public policy from outside government: e.g. nothing that at present could be called a think tank. The tradition of looking to provision by the state, and the British and other governments, has often prevailed.
A whiff of corruption remains in political life. There have been significant cases of politicians sailing close to the wind, at times closer than they could have got away with elsewhere, though there is little hard evidence of criminality.
Given their record, the Northern Ireland institutions are held in particularly low esteem by the electorate, though the principle of devolution still appears to be widely supported. And increasingly they seem to command little enthusiasm even among those who work in them.

Future opportunitiesFuture threats
Concern for the success of the peace process is in particular evident in the EU approach to Brexit. If there were a united Northern Ireland voice on Brexit issues, it would be very influential.Hitherto Northern Ireland’s crises have often been resolved by negotiation under the auspices of the British and Irish governments, with strong US interest. All those partners are now heavily committed elsewhere. They may now have much less capacity or inclination to resolve Northern Ireland’s longer-term problems.
There remains, despite the increasingly divergent positions of the two main Westminster party leaderships, an element of bipartisanship in the approach there to Northern Ireland, which can at times facilitate necessary, sometimes urgent, intervention.The overtly unionist line that the Conservative party has taken in UK government since 2010, and its current dependence on the DUP at Westminster, may mean that the British government now has particular difficulties in helping develop political compromise. Its good faith, always to some extent doubted by Northern Ireland parties, is now particularly seriously in issue with nationalists.
Parliament, too, may be weakened in its ability effectively to oversee Northern Ireland affairs, not least because of the absence of nationalists elected in Northern Ireland.
More widely, the understanding among British political players of Northern Ireland issues, developed over the decades of the Troubles and subsequent Agreements, seems to have rapidly dissipated. Prime ministers latterly have shown little interest, except so far as Northern Ireland impacted on Westminster arithmetic.


On an optimistic view, it is possible to see devolved government resuming after the summer, and even to envisage measures to improve the way it functions. There is a good argument that those would bolster future stability. The Northern Ireland institutions might then progress beyond achieving the necessary but scarcely sufficient requirement of embodying cross community working, towards the objective of delivering effective government that is the main expectation of political institutions elsewhere, and still more ambitiously of setting out a positive vision of the future (irrespective of constitutional destiny).

But for the present, and especially while key Brexit issues remain to be resolved, it is not clear that we shall reach that point. The two main parties have appeared to be moving further apart, and reverting to the rhetoric of earlier days. There may not be sufficient commitment to restore devolved government in the short-term with the Brexit negotiations producing a succession of grounds for disagreement between the parties.

And the British government’s standing, and its preoccupations elsewhere, mean that it would face very serious and perhaps destabilising challenges if it were to reintroduce direct rule, traditionally the alternative where agreement sufficient to sustain devolved government is not possible, but already much disliked by nationalists. Northern Ireland may this autumn drift into its second Assembly election of the year, something both large parties may favour since it is liable to crush the smaller ones. But it seems unlikely to bring resume devolved government closer.

But at some point, action to establish political authority over the civil servants who are, no doubt to their great discomfort, at present presiding over autopilot government, will as a practical matter become inevitable at some point. If direct rule is restored, the Irish Government will under the Good Friday Agreement have a right to make representations about the conduct of government in Northern Ireland – itself a potential source of much contention, and the more so since Brexit is opening serious strains in the relationship of the two governments.

No early majority in a referendum for a united Ireland seems likely – indeed it seems unlikely the Secretary of State will call one. But if such a decision eventually came about by a narrow majority vote, rather than as the product of negotiation involving significant representation of both communities in Northern Ireland, it would be highly destructive and divisive, in both parts of Ireland and beyond.

We are at a profoundly dangerous point for democracy in Northern Ireland. The consensus underpinning the Good Friday Agreement institutions appears to be fragmenting – and Brexit may speed the process. But it is hard to see any plausible alternative to those arrangements that could deliver stability. The longer devolved government remains in abeyance, the more difficult it may be to put it back together. And though an immediate increase in violence is unlikely, violent people have in the past flourished when constructive politics was weak.

This post does not represent the views of the LSE.

Alan Whysall is an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Constitiution Unit of University College London. Until 2015, he was involved with the Northern Ireland peace process as a senior British civil servant in the Northern Ireland Office (with spells in the Cabinet Office in London).

Similar Posts

Comments are closed.