Queen's Policy Engagement

25 Years of Devolution in Northern Ireland: Politics, Not Administration

This blog, by Muiris MacCarthaigh and Ka Ka Katie Tsang, is part of an IPPO series looking at how policymaking across England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland has been shaped by devolution since 1999.

25 Years of Devolution in Northern Ireland: Politics, Not Administration

A product of the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, devolution in Northern Ireland followed a period of direct rule that had extended from 1972. The creation of new institutions under the international agreement, and specifically an elected legislature and executive, coincided with the ascent to power the previous year of ‘New’ Labour with its ambitions to move power outside of London.

Often forgotten is the fact that Northern Ireland had prior experience of devolution from the moment of its creation in 1921 until the demise of the parliament at Stormont in 1972. This half-century of devolved government was characterised by unionist political dominance and ever-accumulating nationalist grievances about the operation of government at all levels, including discriminatory political and administrative practices. This was a catalyst for the outbreak of violence known as the ‘Troubles’ in 1968/9 which was to last for three decades.

This experience of devolved but majoritarian government during 1921-72 was to be in contrast with the power-sharing government designed under Strand 1 of the 1998 Agreement. Its design placed heavy emphasis on the need for support from both major political communities for policy development. The Agreement restored a system of sharing public policy responsibility between Westminster and Stormont according to three categories:

  • Excepted matters, such as international treaties and defence issues, which remained at Westminster
  • Reserved matters, such as telecommunications and intellectual property, which may be transferred to the devolved institutions subject to cross-community support and the consent of the Secretary of State
  • Transferred matters, which are the remaining policy issues which have been transferred to the devolved institutions, and which include major public services such as health and social services, education, agriculture and housing. Responsibility for policing and justice, long a controversial policy area and a reserved matter, was transferred to Stormont in 2010.

Early Administrative reforms

Following the bedding in of the new political institutions, attention turned to the administrative system and a ‘Review of Public Administration’ (RPA) was announced in 2002 with a view to rationalising the number of organisations. To provide political stability, the organisation of civil service departments were outside the scope of the review, which finally reported in 2006. As was to become a pattern, seeking to maximise stability and to keep the Assembly functioning trumped any administrative or organisational reforms that might cause political disharmony between the two large blocs – Unionism and Nationalism.

The RPA resulted in a rationalisation of the number of regional authorities in high-expenditure areas like education and health, and amalgamation of health and social care services. However controversy emerged from its suggestion to reduce the number of elected local authorities from 26 to seven. The restoration of the institutions in 2007 followed a period of direct rule beginning in 2002), prompted a ‘review of the review’ which made a final recommendation for the creation of 11 local authorities, from the existing 26, in 2015.

A new review of the Northern Irish administrative system commissioned by the Executive in 2014 and published by the OECD in 2016 proposed a stronger emphasis on ‘common purpose’ and a cross-departmental and outcomes-based approach to policy. De-coded, the report found particularly weak levels of cooperation and coordination between departments. A key recommendation (and similar to efforts in Scotland) was to move towards a multi-year strategic and ‘outcomes-based’ Programme for Government, that would seek to overcome organisational boundaries and political non-cooperation. However this progress has been stymied by routine collapses of the NI institutions.

The Perma-crisis of Political Devolution in Northern Ireland

While reconciliation and fostering peace were at the heart of the 1998 Agreement, devolved politics in Northern Ireland has shifted dramatically over the quarter century. Most explicitly, the devolved government in Stormont today is headed by a nationalist rather than unionist First Minister and no bloc holds a majority status.

Having only experienced two full political terms over its existence, the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive have endured prolonged periods of disruption and repeated instances of dissolution for almost 40% of its entire life span, including collapse for almost five years between 2002-7, for three years from 2017 to 2020, and most recently from January 2022 until February 2024.

The ambition of building trust and confidence between Nationalist and Unionist political leaders often seems amiss, but the Agreement has largely succeeded in the promotion of peace and a dramatic decline in paramilitary activity since its implementation.

A primary lesson from the numerous Assembly suspensions is that devolution cannot work without sustained cooperation and the continuous and coherent support of the British and Irish governments. This was sorely tested by the Brexit referendum of 2016, in which 56% of those voting in Northern Ireland opted to remain.


The UK’s decision to leave the European Union had enormous ramifications for the island of Ireland, and the architecture of the 1998 Agreement. Protecting an open border on the island of Ireland was a shared priority for the UK and EU negotiators in the Brexit process, with the latter reflecting Member-state Ireland’s interests in particular.The result was a ‘Protocol’ added to the withdrawal agreement between the UK and EU which dealt with the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland including, controversially, keeping Northern Ireland aligned with certain EU regulations for goods. Together with the (comparatively ‘thin’) EU-UK trade and cooperation agreement, this Protocol created a de facto border in the Irish Sea, which led to disruptions in trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Reactions to the Protocol’s impact on internal UK trade resulted in yet another collapse of the NI institutions in 2022 which were eventually restored in 2024, and following another additional agreement between the EU and UK known as the Windsor Framework which sought, with some success, to assuage unionist concerns about the nature of the ‘sea border’ that had come into being. This was further supplemented by a ‘Safeguarding the Union’ deal between the largest unionist party and the British government.

Restoring power sharing, but not funding

As part of the return of devolved government following the Windsor Framework, a financial stimulus package was provided to the Northern Ireland Executive, including a lump sum to meet public sector pay demands.  However, party leaders from all four parties within the Executive argued the funds fell short of what was actually required to rebalance the status of public funds in NI. This remains the case for problems left unresolved from the previous Programme for Government concerning ever-growing health waiting lists, the delivery of a mental health strategy and securing cost-of-living support.

Prior to the UK’s withdrawal agreement from the European Union, devolved institutions, local authorities and third sector organisations relied heavily on funding from both the EU, via the European Social Fund (ESF), and the UK Government. While the UK has allocated NI a sum of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, this falls far short of the gap created by the ending of the ESF allocation, with many services provided by local charities and other organisations ceasing.


About the Authors

Prof Muiris MacCarthaigh is Professor of Politics and Public Policy and Head of Politics and International Relations in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast.

Dr Ka Ka Katie Tsang is a Research Fellow in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queeen’s University Belfast. Her research interests in relation to the policy priorities for the International Public Policy Observatory 2023-2024 calendar years focus on the cross-cutting challenges of pandemic recovery, net zero, place and spatial inequality as well as socio-economic inequality.

Article first appeared on the IPPO website. 


The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license. 


Dr Ka Ka Tsang
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Dr Ka Ka Tsang is a Research Fellow in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen's University Belfast. Her current research focus relates to the policy priorities for the International Public Policy Observatory and focus on the cross-cutting challenges of pandemic recovery, net zero, place and spatial inequality as well as socio-economic inequality.

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