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Northern Ireland Executive

The Northern Ireland Executive is the devolved government of Northern Ireland, an administrative branch of the legislature Northern Ireland Assembly. It is answerable to the Assembly and was established according to the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which followed the Good Friday Agreement (or Belfast Agreement). The executive is referred to in the legislation as the Executive Committee of the Assembly and is an example of a consociationalist government.

In contrast with Westminster system cabinets, which generally need only be backed by a majority of legislators, ministerial positions in the Northern Ireland Executive are allocated to parties with significant representation in the Assembly. With the exception of justice, the number of ministries to which each party is entitled is determined by the D'Hondt system.

The Executive cannot function if either of the two largest parties refuse to take part, as these parties are allocated the First Minister and deputy First Minister positions. However, other parties are not required to enter the Executive even if they are entitled to do so; instead, they can choose to go into opposition if they wish. There were some calls for the SDLP and the UUP to enter opposition after the 2007 Assembly elections, but ultimately the two parties chose to take the seats in the Executive to which they were entitled.

On 25 May 2016 a new executive was announced (three weeks after assembly election). For the first time in the assembly's history, parties that were entitled to ministries (i.e. UUP, SDLP and Alliance) chose instead to go into opposition following a recent bill providing parties with this choice. This meant that the executive was formed only by the two major parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, and thus giving them more seats in the Executive (with the exception of the Department of Justice which was given to an Independent Unionist MLA, Claire Sugden, due to this appointment needing cross-community support).

The current system of devolution has succeeded long periods of direct rule (19741999 and 20022007), when the Northern Ireland Civil Service had a considerable influence on government policy. The legislation which established new departments in 1999 affirmed that "the functions of a department shall at all times be exercised subject to the direction and control of the Minister". Ministerial powers can be conferred by an Act of the Assembly and ministers can also exercise executive powers which are vested in the Crown.

Ministerial decisions can be challenged by a petition of 30 Northern Ireland Assembly members. This action can be taken for alleged breaches of the Ministerial Code and on "matters of public importance". The Speaker of the Assembly must consult political party leaders in the Assembly (who are often also ministers) before deciding whether the subject is a matter of public importance. Successful petitions will then be considered by the Executive.

On 26 August 2015, the UUP withdrew from the Executive in protest over the alleged involvement of members of the Provisional IRA in the murder of Kevin McGuigan Sr. Danny Kennedy MLA's position as Minister for Regional Development was later taken over by the DUP, thereby leaving four Northern Irish parties in the power sharing agreement. On 10 September 2015 Peter Robinson stepped down as First Minister, although he did not officially resign. Arlene Foster took over as acting First Minister. Robinson subsequently resumed his duties as First Minister again on 20 October 2015.

The fourth Executive was formed following the May 2016 election. The SDLP, UUP and Alliance Party left the Executive and formed the Official Opposition for the first time. Ministerial positions were proportionally allocated between the DUP and Sinn Fein, with independent unionist Claire Sugden serving as Minister of Justice. The government collapsed on 16 January 2017, after Martin McGuinness resigned in protest over the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal. His resignation sparked a snap election as Sinn Fein refused to re-nominate a deputy First Minister.

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2019 was passed by the UK parliament on 10 July 2019 and became law on 24 July. The main purpose of the bill is to prevent another election and keep Northern Ireland services running in the absence of a functional devolved government. However, two Labour MPs, Conor McGinn and Stella Creasy, added amendments that would legalize same-sex marriage and liberalize abortion law (both devolved issues) if the DUP and Sinn Fein cannot come to an agreement before 21 October.