How does Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government work?

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Votes have been counted in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, with Sinn Féin becoming the largest party.

Northern Ireland's government works by a system of power sharing, introduced in the 1990s as a way of ending decades of violence.

However, making this work has been a difficult process - a situation which is not likely to be changed by this election.

What is power sharing?

The principle of power sharing is what sets Northern Ireland's government apart from the UK's other nations.

It means that in any government there must be representatives from both the nationalist community - who favour unity with the Republic of Ireland - and unionists, who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK.

The idea is that, whatever their historic differences, both communities have a vested interest in making the system work.

How does this work in practice?

A chamber of 90 members (MLAs) is elected to the assembly at least once every five years.

Five MLAs are elected in each of the 18 constituencies using a system called single transferable vote (STV), which ranks candidates by preference.

Northern Ireland has a first minister and a deputy first minister - one unionist, the other nationalist.Since 2006 the first minister has been chosen by the largest party in the assembly. If this is a unionist party, then the deputy minister is drawn from the largest nationalist party, and vice versa.

Both ministers have equal powers, and one cannot be in office without the other.

The executive, or cabinet is multi-party, and ministers are drawn from both unionist, nationalist and non-aligned parties, based on how many seats they have won in an election. This also means that politicians from smaller parties can be appointed as ministers.

The assembly exercises powers over matters including the economy, education, health, and more recently, Covid.

Certain areas - including international relations and defence - remain reserved for the UK government in London.

How did the present system come about?

Northern Ireland was created in 1921 and remained part of the UK, when the rest of Ireland became an independent state.

This created a split in the population between the unionists - who were mainly Protestant - and nationalists, who were predominantly Catholic.

From the late 1960s, armed groups from both sides, such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA), carried out out bombings and shootings.

This period was known as the Troubles - it lasted almost 30 years, and cost the lives of more than 3,500 people.

Peace talks started in the early 1990s, culminating in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which ended the worst of the violence.

It was endorsed in a referendum with 71% voting in favour. Under its terms, Northern Ireland found itself run by a new power-sharing assembly.

Trimble and HumeImage source, Pacemaker
Image caption,
1998: UUP leader David Trimble (left) and SDLP leader John Hume (right) won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work on the Good Friday Agreement

How well has it worked?

The assembly has endured but it has also been suspended a number of times. The longest suspension was between 2002 and 2007, during which time Northern Ireland was run once more from London.

Relations between the two main parties broke down again in 2017, and the assembly and ruling executive were not restored until January 2020.

In February this year the DUP's Paul Givan resigned as first minister, in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol.

This is the section of the UK's Brexit deal with the EU which keeps Northern Ireland aligned with the European single market, and protects the movement of goods across the border with the Irish Republic.

However, it also involves creating border controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Unionists are not happy at what they perceive as a weakening of Northern Ireland's bond with Great Britain. The issue has caused street protests and unrest in some areas.

What happens after the election?

Now that Sinn Féin has become the largest party in the assembly, its deputy leader, Michelle O'Neill, stands to become first minister.

The DUP - which had been the largest party since 2007 - has not yet said whether it will nominate a deputy first minister.

Sir Jeffrey said his party would respect the result of the election, however there needed to be changes made to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The recent growth of the Alliance Party could also prompt calls to alter the power-sharing system created in 1998.

Alliance defines itself as separate from the traditional unionist and nationalist blocs in Northern Ireland's politics.

If no agreement is reached on this, the assembly can continue to exist and the other ministers who held office before the election - such as the health minister and education minister - can stay in post for up to six months.

If a solution cannot be found after that time, there would either need to be further negotiations or a fresh election.