Stormont without NI leadership for third of its lifespan

By Eimear Flanagan
BBC News NI

  • Published
Image source, Getty Images/Eye Ubiquitous
Image caption,
Stormont became home to the "new Northern Ireland Assembly" a generation ago

Since devolution as we know it today began in Northern Ireland 22 years ago, Stormont has been without a functioning government for 35% of its lifespan.

A series of resignations, suspensions and stand-offs have interrupted power-sharing, sometimes for years at a time.

Its record of dysfunction may be about to get even worse as Stormont lost both of its leaders earlier this month.

Without its first and deputy first ministers in place, much of Stormont's decision-making power grinds to a halt.

BBC News NI looks back at the stop-start nature of Stormont and the rows that have brought the house down.

When did power-sharing begin at Stormont?

The current Northern Ireland Assembly was established in 1998 as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, but government ministers were not appointed until the following year.

Devolution took shape as Northern Ireland emerged from decades of violence known as the Troubles and there were serious teething problems as unionists and nationalists got to grips with sharing power.

The first locally-elected ministers took charge on 2 December 1999, which was just over 22 years and two months ago, (or 8,108 calendar days to be precise).

But from the outset, the new government was beset by battles over when the IRA would give up its weapons, a controversy which almost strangled it at birth.

Image source, Getty Images/PAUL FAITH
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Northern Ireland's first power-sharing executive held its first meeting on 2 December 1999, but without its DUP ministers

Who is in charge at Stormont right now?

Stormont is usually governed by a team of 10 locally-elected ministers who are collectively known as the Northern Ireland Executive.

That executive must be led jointly by a first minister from Northern Ireland's biggest political party and a deputy first minister from its second largest party.

Under Stormont's power-sharing rules, his resignation meant Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill automatically lost her position as deputy first minister.

The other eight ministers are still working in their own departments, but they cannot meet as an executive in the absence of a first and deputy first minister.

More importantly, executive ministers cannot take any major new decisions without the two leaders.

It has caused complications for lifting coronavirus restrictions and means that the budget for the next three years cannot be approved, and that has far-reaching implications for the health service.

Image source, Getty Images/Charles McQuillan
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Michelle O'Neill lost her position as deputy first minister when Paul Givan resigned

Has Stormont been suspended?

No, not this time. Its government departments are still running and assembly members are continuing to debate and pass legislation.

However, the loss of the first and deputy first ministers means the executive is no longer functioning.

This week, we learned that Stormont will be allowed to stagger on in this manner for the next three months, until its next election which is expected on 5 May.

That is due to new legislation passed at Westminster this week aimed at stabilising power-sharing, which allows the assembly to continue without an executive for at least six months

Suspension and a return to direct rule from Westminster are seen as a last resort and in more recent years, various procedures have been used to avoid complete collapse.

After the last election in 2017, it took nearly three years to form a government.

The 90 newly-elected assembly members kept their seats and most of their salaries, but could not pass laws or hold debates during that period.

With the civil service running public services in the absence of an executive, legislation was passed in 2018 to allow civil servants more flexibility to take decisions without ministers.

Image source, Getty Images/Kelvin Boyes
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Power-sharing returned to Stormont on 11 January 2020 after a three-year gap

Why do NI ministers give up their powers so often?

Tactical resignations at the very top of Stormont have been used since the very early days of devolution.

Parties have taken advantage of a previous rule which stipulated that when Stormont's leaders quit and were not replaced, there would be a six-week deadline before the assembly would be dissolved for a fresh election.

But it is not just leaders who can quit or threaten to quit.

At one stage in 2015, DUP ministers were resigning and being reappointed every week, in a tactic which Sinn Féin criticised as a version of the Hokey Cokey.

Image source, Jeff Overs/Getty Images/Pacemaker
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David Trimble, Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness, Arlene Foster each faced significant challenges during their tenure in charge

Timeline of stand-offs and suspensions: