House of Commons - Explanatory Note
House of Commons
Session 1999-2000
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Arrangement of Clauses (Contents)

Northern Ireland Bill


These notes refer to the Northern Ireland Bill
as introduced in the House of Commons on 4th February 2000 [Bill 61]




1     These explanatory notes relate to the Northern Ireland Bill as introduced in the House of Commons on 4th February 2000. They have been prepared by the Northern Ireland Office in order to assist the reader of the Bill and to help inform debate on it. They do not form part of the Bill and have not been endorsed by Parliament.

2     The notes need to be read in conjunction with the Bill. They are not, and are not meant to be, a comprehensive description of the Bill. So where a clause or part of a clause does not seem to require any explanation or comment, none is given.


3     On 2 December 1999 legislative and executive authority over a range of matters was transferred to the Northern Ireland Assembly. This followed the conclusion of a Review of the Implementation of the Belfast Agreement carried out by Senator George Mitchell. Announcing the outcome of the Review to Parliament (Hansard, 22 November), the Secretary of State also indicated that should future circumstances require it the operation of the Assembly (and other institutions) could be suspended.

4     This Bill provides for the suspension of the operation of devolved government in Northern Ireland.

5     The Bill provides for executive responsibility for Northern Ireland to revert to the Secretary of State, and for the legislative power of the Assembly to be exercisable by Order in Council, during the suspension period.

6     The Secretary of State can end the period of suspension by making an order (referred to as a 'Restoration Order'). Before doing so he must take into account the outcome of a Review (see below).


Clause 1: Suspension of devolved Government in Northern Ireland

7     This Clause suspends the operation of the Northern Ireland Assembly and sets out in Subsections (2)-(7) some specific functions and activities of the Assembly that cannot take place during the suspension period. These include:

  • The Assembly and/or its committees cannot meet or conduct any business

  • The Assembly cannot pass any legislation

  • Ministers will not hold office and there can be no appointments to office

Subsection (8) refers to the Schedule of the Bill. This sets out the details of how Assembly business and functions will be carried out during the suspension period and is dealt with in more detail below

Clause 2: Ending the period of suspension

8     The Clause sets out the conditions that must be fulfilled before the Secretary of State can end the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

9     Under Subsection (1) the Secretary of State has to initiate a 'Review' under the Validation, Implementation and Review section of the Belfast Agreement. The relevant text from the Agreement is as follows:

    "If difficulties arise which require remedial action across the range of institutions, or otherwise require amendment of the British-Irish Agreement or relevant legislation, the process of review will fall to the two Governments in consultation with the parties in the Assembly. Each Government will be responsible for action in its own jurisdiction."

    (para 7 of Validation, Implementation and Review, Belfast Agreement (Cm 3883))

10     To end the suspension of the Assembly and institutions the Secretary of State can make an Order (a Restoration Order) under Subsection (2) that makes Clause 1 of the Bill (dealing with the practicalities of suspension) cease to have effect. However, before he makes such an Order, he has to take into account the result of the Review that has been undertaken. Any expenses associated with the review which fall to be met by the United Kingdom will be paid by the Secretary of State.

Clause 3: Effect of Restoration

11     The clause provides for the automatic re-appointment of Ministers and chairmen and deputy chairmen of committees to their previous positions after a Restoration Order has been made, provided they remain eligible to hold office.

12     If such a position is vacant after the suspension of the Assembly has been lifted, replacements will need to be appointed. Subsections (3) to (5) allow for the joint election of new First and deputy First Ministers under the relevant parts of section 16 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. Under that Act the First and deputy First Ministers must stand for election as a pair of candidates, one each from the two traditions, and must be elected as a pair. Subsection (7) allows for the appointment of Ministers and Committee chairmen and deputy chairmen using the d'Hondt formula that allocates positions according to party strengths in the Assembly.

Clause 4: Further suspension by order

13      Revocation of a Restoration Order made under Clause 2, has the effect, under Clause 4, of bringing Clause 1 of the Bill into force again, so suspending the operation of the Assembly and the holding of the offices referred to in Clause 1.

Clause 5: Implementation Bodies

14     The Clause directs the Secretary of State to transfer any of the functions of the cross-border Implementation Bodies to the relevant Northern Ireland Department in line with arrangements made under an International Agreement with the Irish Government. Should the Secretary of State make a Restoration Order (as detailed above), he must return any transferred functions to the Implementation Body that exercised them at the time this Bill came into force, where any such agreement so requires.

Clause 7: Orders made under this Act: supplemental provision

15     The Clause covers technical provisions about the making of secondary legislation under the Act. Any statutory instrument made by the Secretary of State (except those expressly mentioned in subsections (3) and (4)) is subject to the affirmative resolution procedure; and all such affirmative resolution instruments, save for that under paragraph 1(4) of the Schedule, may be made under the urgency procedure.

Clause 8: Interpretation etc

16     The Clause defines some of the phrases used in the Bill and refers to other definitions given in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. It also provides, in Subsection (2) that any phrase used both in the Bill and in the 1998 Act will have the same meaning.


17     The Schedule to the Bill sets out how the functions of the Assembly and its Ministers and the Northern Ireland Departments will be discharged during a period of suspension. These are mostly technical provisions and are generally designed to return the operation of Northern Ireland matters to the way they were handled immediately prior to the devolution of power.

18     Paragraph 1 enables legislation that would normally be made by the Northern Ireland Assembly to be passed by Order in Council for the first six months of any suspension period. Sub-paragraph (4) allows the Secretary of State to increase that period in extensions of not more than six months at a time. Any order to extend the period would be subject to affirmative resolution by both Houses of Parliament.

19     Paragraph 2 sets out the Parliamentary controls that apply to Orders in Council under paragraph 1. Each Order in Council has to be debated and approved by Parliament either before it comes into force, or within 40 days of it being made. Paragraph 3 ensures that such Orders are included within references to Assembly legislation.

20     Under Paragraph 4 the functions of the First and deputy First Ministers fall to the Secretary of State to exercise and the functions of Northern Ireland Ministers to their Departments. Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office will assume responsibility for and control of the Northern Ireland Departments during the suspension period, under the direction of the Secretary of State. Paragraph 4(1)(d) temporarily removes the legislative obligation on the First and deputy First Ministers to set up a consultative Civic Forum in Northern Ireland.

21     The remainder of Paragraph 4, and Paragraph 7, consist of technical provisions to ensure that the Secretary of State can take full responsibility and control of the functions of Northern Ireland Departments. They also provide that anything that would have needed to be put to the Assembly can be dealt with while the Assembly is suspended.

22.     Paragraph 5 ensures that during a suspension period, the legislative provisions which would otherwise be triggered to fill vacancies occasioned by the First Minister and deputy First Minister and other office holders ceasing to hold office under Clause 1 do not operate.

23     Paragraph 8 suspends the Assembly Commission; its functions are exercisable by the Secretary of State. It also provides, under sub-paragraph (3) for any expenditure incurred by him as a result to be paid for by money provided by Parliament.

24     Under Paragraph 9 the Secretary of State takes responsibility for Assembly salaries, pensions and other payments for the duration of the suspension period.


25     The Bill will come into force on a day appointed by the Secretary of State by order.


26     Section 19 of the Human Rights Act 1998 requires the Minister in charge of a Bill in either House of Parliament to make a statement, before second reading, about the compatibility of the provisions of the Bill with the Convention Rights (as defined by section 1 of that Act). The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has made the following statement:

In my view the provisions of the Northern Ireland Bill are compatible with the Convention rights.

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Prepared: 4 February 2000