The island of Ireland formerly constituted a single country and legal system which prior to 1919/22 was part of the United Kingdom.  Northern Ireland was established as a separate legal system by the Government of Ireland Act 1920.  Under this legislation, a considerable amount of governmental powers were devolved to Northern Ireland.

The transferred matters included law and order, local government, health and social, education, planning, internal trade, industrial department, and agriculture.  Excepted and reserved matters such as armed forces, external trade, weights and measures, copyright, certain taxation laws remained with the Westminster Parliament.

The Northern Ireland Parliament enjoyed the powers intended to be compromised in home rule for the entire island of Ireland.  In the events that happened, the Irish Free State later the Republic of Ireland gained a greater degree of independence the Irish Free State was established on 6 December 1922.

Certain matters were reserved and intended to be dealt with by the proposed Council of Ireland which was never created.  These included include postal services, registration of deeds and certain taxes.

The Northern Ireland Parliament consisted of the House of Commons and Senate. A Governor General sat in Hillsborough.   Northern Ireland had its own prime minister, government, and administration.

A considerable amount of legislation was passed each year by the parliament much of it still in existence.  Some legislation was very similar to the corresponding England and Wales legislation whilst some was unique to Northern Ireland or reflected the different legal system that existed in Ireland while it was part of the United Kingdom.  Much legislation passed by the United Kingdom Parliament had been specific to Ireland reflecting local laws and conditions.

During the Northern Ireland parliament period, many residual laws were made by the UK Westminster Parliament.  Northern Ireland members of parliament sat in Westminster Parliament, with  some sitting in both Parliaments.


Due to the growing troubles in the early 1970s, the Northern Ireland Parliament was suspended and direct rule was introduced.  For almost the whole period from 1972 to 1999 Northern Ireland was under so-called direct rule.

The Northern Ireland parliament’s power to make laws was formally transferred to the Privy Council acting by orders in council, de facto on the advice of the UK Government.  The executive powers, powers of the former Northern Ireland government were transferred to the Secretary for State for Northern Ireland, a member of the UK cabinet.

A number of attempts were made to restore devolution during this period.  A Northern Ireland assembly was created in 1974 which functioned briefly before being toppled by civil unrest. A further assembly was established 1982 to have scrutiny and consultancy powers but the attempt was unsuccessful.

The Anglo Irish Agreement in 1985 led to the establishment of the Anglo Irish Intergovernmental Conference.  It also created an Anglo Irish Parliamentary Council with 25 members from each of the British and Irish Parliaments meeting from time to time to discuss matters of mutual interest.

The Anglo Irish Agreement was an international treaty and did not have direct force of law.  It gave the Republic of Ireland a consultant role in relation to certain aspects of Northern Ireland government.  The intergovernmental conference allowed representatives of the Irish government to put forward views on the governance of the province.


Following the so-called Good Friday or Belfast Agreement, a referendum was passed in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, approving the new constitutional arrangements. The Republic of Ireland amended its constitution to provided new articles in relation to Northern Ireland.

The British Irish Agreement was implemented by way of a new Northern Ireland Act of the UK Parliament creating the Northern Ireland Assembly.  The government consists of the Executive Committee with a First Minister and Deputy First Minister.  A special procedure applies which gives proportionate seats in the government for Assembly parties. There is a mandatory coalition in the Executive.

The Assembly commenced in December 1999.  The Assembly was dissolved and reinstated a number of times between 2001 and 2007. It operated briefly in 2002 and was suspended again until May 2007.  In this period from Northern Ireland laws were again made by Order in Council.

The Assembly was fully operational since May 2007 and January 2017, since which time it has been suspended due to the inability to form a government.

The powers of the Northern Ireland Assembly similar to that of the former Northern Ireland Parliament.  The Northern Ireland Assembly has the power to make laws on all matters except excepted or reserved matters.  There is provision for transfer of further powers.  In  2010 powers in relation to most policing and criminal justice matters were transferred to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Northern Ireland still elects 18 members to the UK House of Parliament.  There is a Northern Ireland committee in Westminster dealing with Northern Ireland affairs.

Much legislation passed in the United Kingdom Parliament is unique to Northern Ireland.  As was the case when Ireland was part of the United Kingdom may specific Acts and pieces of legislation apply just to Northern Ireland.  This reflects its unique legal system and circumstances.

North-South & East-West

The North-South Ministerial Council meets periodically.  North-South implementation bodies were established to implement policies agreed by ministers at Council meetings.  The North-South bodies are at present

  • Waterways Ireland,
  • Food Safety Promotion Board,
  • Trade and Business Development Body,
  • Special European Union Programmes Body,
  • North South Language Body,
  • Foyle and Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission.

The British Irish Council includes representatives from Ireland,  Northern Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, Isle of Man and Jersey and Guernsey.

The British Irish Intergovernmental Conference replaced the Anglo Irish Intergovernmental Conference.

Prior to devolution Northern Ireland was administered by the Northern Ireland Office.  This was headed by the Secretary for State for Northern Ireland assisted by two or more junior ministers.  It had offices in London and Belfast.

The Northern Ireland civil service staffed the various government departments within Northern Ireland.  They include Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Culture Arts and Leisure, Education, Enterprise Trade and Investment, Environment, Finance and Personnel, Employment and Learning, Health Social Services and Public Safety Regional Development, Social Development.

Share this article