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13 September 2016

The Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive - What's the difference?

The Executive and the Assembly are not the same!


The Assembly is the legislature, or law-making body, made up of MLAs elected by the people of Northern Ireland to represent their views and make laws on their behalf. It meets in the Assembly Chamber of Parliament Buildings, in the grounds of the Stormont Estate in Belfast.

The Executive is the government of Northern Ireland, made up of Ministers in charge of Government Departments. It meets in Stormont Castle, not too far away from Parliament Buildings, also on the Stormont Estate.

The Ministers are MLAs chosen by their parties, using the D'Hondt System, which allocates seats on the Executive based on the number of seats parties win in the Assembly elections. The more MLAs a party has, the more Ministers it can appoint. Currently, the DUP have 4 Ministers and Sinn Féin have 3. The Justice Minister is not appointed using d'Hondt but is elected by the Assembly and must have cross-community support, ie, from both unionists and nationalists.

The Opposition

After the last election on 5 May 2016, the UUP and SDLP decided not to take their seats on the Executive (they were entitled to one each) and they now form the first Official Opposition in the Assembly.

Departments and Ministers


  • Executive Office - First Minister, Arlene Foster MLA and deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness MLA
  • Department for Communities - Paul Given MLA, DUP
  • Department for the Economy - Simon Hamilton MLA, DUP
  • Department of Health - Michelle O'Neill MLA, Sinn Féin
  • Department of Education - Peter Weir MLA, DUP
  • Department of Finance - Mairtín O' Muilleoir MLA, Sinn Féin
  • Department of Justice -Claire Sugden MLA, Independent
  • Department for Infrastructure - Chris Hazzard MLA, Sinn Féin
  • Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs - Michelle McIlveen MLA, DUP

The Executive's work is coordinated by the Executive Office (home of the First and deputy First Minister). The Executive Ministers are responsible for day to day government operational decisions within their own areas of responsibility. They get together to draw up the draft Budget and the draft Programme for Government (PfG) which have to be approved by the Assembly. The Executive also approves the introduction of Executive legislation to the Assembly.

The Assembly

As the elected body which appoints the Ministers, the Assembly must hold the Executive to account, checking and challenging their work and approving the Executive's budget. For every Government Department, there is an Assembly Committee which shadows the work of that Department and Minister.

The Official Opposition (the UUP and the SDLP) also scrutinise the work of Ministers. Other parties outside the Executive - the Alliance Party, the Green Party, People before Profit and the TUV - act as the unofficial opposition. MLAs can individually hold Ministers to account by asking written and oral questions and highlighting issues in Assembly debates during Plenary sessions which they want Ministers to address.

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