Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Northern Ireland Office


  This paper provides guidance on the role of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland following devolution.


  2.  Post-devolution, the Secretary of State has significant responsibilities in five key areas. Namely:

    (a)  to continue to have responsibility for Northern Ireland interests on a wide range of "excepted" and "reserved" matters (particularly security, policing, the criminal law, public order, etc) within the UK Government. The Secretary of State also takes the lead in the presentation in Northern Ireland of UK policies and achievements in relation to "excepted" and "reserved" matters;

    (b)  to act as guardian of the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland by encouraging Northern Ireland Departments and Ministers to maintain and develop stronger bilateral links with their Whitehall/Westminster (and Edinburgh and Cardiff) counterparts and to act as honest broker should there be any dispute between the NI administration and Whitehall or Westminster. More generally, the Secretary of State will continue to have overall responsibility for securing the successful implementation of the political project—long-term political stability;

    (c)  to promote good British/Irish relations, particularly through the British Irish Inter-Governmental Conference and its Secretariat;

    (d)  to secure Northern Ireland's share of public expenditure; and

    (e)  to have formal responsibility for "consenting" to relevant Northern Ireland Bills, to submit Assembly Bills for Royal Assent and to approve and lay before Parliament any Assembly legislation on reserved matters.


  3.  From 2 December 1999, the Northern Ireland Assembly has exercised legislative and executive responsibility for issues which had previously been dealt with by the six Departments of the Northern Ireland Civil Service under the responsibility of the Secretary of State. Ten new departments have been created and responsibility has been transferred to them for dealing with such issues as health, social services, education and training, employment, regional and social development, the environment, trade and investment, culture and the arts and agriculture and rural development. In addition, the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister is responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights and equality issues as well as economic policy. Further information on the new Northern Ireland Departments and their responsibilities is given at Annex A.


  4.  The Northern Ireland Act 1998 divides responsibility for Northern Ireland on the basis of three categories, entitled "excepted", "reserved" and "transferred" matters. Responsibility for the first two of these categories remains with the Government, while responsibility for "transferred" matters now rests with the devolved Northern Ireland administration. The three categories closely reflect those in the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973. A number of updatings of the schedules have been made, however, generally by adding to matters in the reserved field, reflecting the appearance of new subjects for legislation in recent years. Annex B sets out the three categories in greater detail, and the Secretary of State's role with regard to legislation in each category.

  5.  Whilst the Secretary of State remains in charge of certain "reserved" functions, such as criminal justice and policing, it is intended that responsibility for many of these matters will be devolved as soon as circumstances allow. In the meantime, the Assembly can legislate on reserved matters with the Secretary of State's consent and subject to Parliamentary control, although it is not expected that it will regularly do so.

  6.  Responsibility for "excepted" matters will remain at Westminster. The Assembly can legislate on excepted matters only with the consent of the Secretary of State and only where the matters concerned are ancillary to other provisions dealing with reserved or transferred matters.


  7.  The legal distinctions between excepted, reserved and transferred matters will not prevent lively discussion developing across the UK on issues which transcend these categories, discussion in which the Secretary of State will necessarily be involved. The Secretary of State will also need to continue to promote the devolution settlement, by encouraging close working relations between the Assembly, UK and Northern Ireland Departments, and between the UK and Scottish Parliaments and the Welsh Assembly. Under normal circumstances the lead UK Departments will liaise directly with their Northern Ireland counterparts.


  8.  The Secretary of State will have an important role to play in promoting British/Irish relations, especially through the British Irish Inter-Governmental Conference and its Secretariat. The Northern Ireland administration will also be represented at meetings of the Conference.


  9.  The Secretary of State will also work with the Irish Government, the devolved administrations in the UK and the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, in the British Irish Council, on matters within their responsibility.


  10.  Following devolution, there are separate financial allocations for the NIO and the devolved institutions. Changes to the Northern Ireland budget are largely determined on an automatic basis by application of the "Barnett" formula, while the NIO negotiates directly with HM Treasury alongside other Whitehall Departments.

  11.  The Secretary of State will represent Northern Ireland's interests in any Cabinet discussion on Northern Ireland financial matters, and may need to brief the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary on the wider political context of any bid for additional resources made by the Northern Ireland administration. The Secretary of State will also need to advise the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary on the Government's wider interest in a successful political settlement and provide any relevant information about the attitudes of other Whitehall Departments and/or the Irish Government.


  12.  Under sections 5, 8 and 14 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 the Secretary of State has formal responsibility for "consenting" to certain Assembly Bills and the forwarding of all Assembly Bills for Royal Assent. Further information on his powers in this area are set out in Annex B.

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