The Northern Ireland Parliament

The Parliament of Northern Ireland was established by the Government of Ireland Act 1920, a piece of legislation that was intended to establish a partition of Ireland and create two devolved Parliaments within the United Kingdom. However the institutions of the Parliament of Southern Ireland were stillborn: none of the seats in the Southern Ireland House of Commons were contested and Sinn Féin won all the territorial constituencies. Eventually the provisions of the Act were superseded by the establishment of the Irish Free State, and this also rendered the proposed Council of Ireland ineffective. The Parliament of Northern Ireland was bicameral: alongside the directly elected House of Commons was the Senate of twenty-six members. Twenty-four Senators were elected by the House of Commons using the single transferable vote; the other two seats were held ex officio by the the Lord Mayors of Belfast and Londonderry. Because the Senate had the same party balance as the House of Commons and was dependent on it for election, it had virtually no impact. After initially meeting in Belfast City Hall, the Parliament built for itself a new headquarters building at Stormont on the eastern outskirts of Belfast. Completed in 1932 to a design by Sir Arnold Thornley, Parliament Buildings are in the Greek classical style with the exterior faced in Portland stone. Also on the Parliamentary estate are Stormont Castle, which served as the headquarters of the Cabinet, and Stormont House which was the residence of the Speaker of the House of Commons.


Stormont was given power to legislate over almost all aspects of Northern Ireland life, with only a few matters excluded from its remit: succession to the Crown, making of peace or war, armed forces, honours, naturalization, some central taxes and postal services were the most important (for a full list see s. 4 of the Government of Ireland Act 1920). The Parliament did not try to infringe the terms of the Government of Ireland Act; on only one occasion did the United Kingdom government advise the King to with-hold Royal Assent. This was the Local Government Act (Northern Ireland) which abolished proportional representation in local government elections; the issue was referred to London and Royal Assent was eventually given. The output of legislation was very respectable for a devolved Parliament, though some of the Acts were adaptations of recently passed United Kingdom Acts. Stormont was an innovator in much of its legislation. Though section 16 of the Schedule to the Irish Free State (Agreement) Act 1922 forbade the Parliament to make any law which directly or indirectly discriminated against a religion, this provision was very easily flouted.

In most of its activities the House of Commons deliberately used the same procedure as the United Kingdom Parliament at Westminster. Each Parliament opened with a King’s (or Queen’s) Speech, though after the first King’s Speech in 1921, it was delivered by the Governor of Northern Ireland. The Governor was the Crown’s representative who formally summoned and prorogued Parliament. When the Parliament emulated Westminster, it also emulated some of the more bizarre traditions such as giving a First Reading to the Outlawries Bill immediately after the speech from the throne - a token gesture of defiance of Royal authority. The same sessional orders were then agreed relating to Members returned for two constituencies.


As at Westminster, Members referred to each other in debate as “the honourable Member for the (X) division”. Bills, introduced either in the Senate or the House of Commons, had to pass through First Reading, Second Reading, Committee Stage, and Third Reading in both Houses to become law. With a very strict divorce law, the Parliament was often asked to deal with Private Bills promoted by divorcing couples. Because of the much smaller size of the House, only one Member was required to act as a Teller for each side during a division and they were counted among those voting in the division. The Parliament established virtually the same Parliamentary and Committee structure as Westminster - whether or not it was needed in a House of only 52 members.

The House normally sat on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays each week. However, when business was light (which it often was), Members could be given a day off. The House met at 3’o’clock each day. Standing Orders required the interruption of business at half past 6’o’clock on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 9’o’clock on Wednesdays. The sitting began with oral questions, which rarely filled up the time allotted. On Tuesdays the period from 4’o’clock was allotted to Private Members - either for a debate, or a formal motion, or for a Private Members’ Bill. In practice the whole of the business each day rarely lasted very long. The whole of the 51 years of the House of Commons fit into only 84 volumes of ‘Hansard’, and fewer than 84 books, because the printers sometimes bound more than one volume together.


The reason Stormont emulated Westminster was not so much that its Members had decided to use a set-up they were knowledgeable about and experienced with (though some of the initial Members in 1921 were Westminster MPs), nor was it a declaration of allegiance with the United Kingdom. The central reason was that the Westminster system gives almost unlimited power to the party that has a majority. Unfortunately the counterbalance operating at Westminster (that today’s Government may very easily become tomorrow’s opposition) did not apply at Stormont: the political reality was that Northern Ireland was established to have a Unionist majority. For this reason the Nationalist party did not even take their seats during the first Parliament (1921-25) and did not accept the role of Opposition until 2nd February 1965 - see Official Report (Northern Ireland House of Commons), vol. 59 col. 128.

Nationalist refusal to co-operate with Stormont did not prompt the Unionists to make concessions - in fact it led to the opposite. As at Westminster, Stormont had a Public Accounts Committee which was intended to be Chaired by a senior opposition member. The Nationalist Party as largest opposition party refused to nominate anyone. The Northern Ireland Labour Party offered to take the job but Unionists insisted on nominating one of their own backbenchers instead. The Government of Ireland Act prescribed that elections to the House of Commons be by the single transferable vote, though the Parliament was given power to alter the electoral system from three years after its first meeting. The PR system was the subject of criticism from grassroots Unionists but because the three year period ended during the Labour government of 1924, the government decided not to provoke the known nationalist sympathies of many Labour backbenchers and held the second election on the same basis. The loss of eight Unionist seats in that election caused great acrimony and in 1929 the system was changed to first past the post for all territorial constituencies.

These constituencies were drawn up not by an impartial boundary commission but by the Unionist government. Accusations of gerrymandering were inevitable. The clearest example is County Fermanagh where two Unionists and one Nationalist represented a county with a Nationalist majority. It has been claimed that in Belfast the boundary draftsman miscalculated in attempting to create a fourth Nationalist seat. Because Northern Ireland is mostly rural, population movements were so small that these boundaries were used almost everywhere until the Parliament was dissolved in 1972; in 1968 the government abolished the four-member Queen’s University constituency and created four new constituencies in the outskirts of Belfast. This change helped the Unionists as they held only two of the Queen’s University seats but won all four of the newly created seats.


When the Government of Ireland Act 1920 received Royal Assent, it repealed the Government of Ireland Act 1914 under which the whole of Ireland would have elected a devolved Parliament. The Unionist MPs of the day did not welcome the Act (they abstained in the House of Commons vote), but regarded it as much better than the alternative. However, the Act envisioned eventual Irish unity, and so Unionism felt it had at all times to make sure it had a majority in the Northern Ireland Parliament to retain the Union (a situation made explicit in the Ireland Act 1949). Unionist rhetoric often insisted that the existence of the Parliament made partition of Ireland permanent (‘Northern Ireland without a Parliament of her own would be a standing temptation to certain British politicians to make another bid for a final settlement with the Irish Republic’ said the Ulster Unionist Council Report in 1936), but at every election, partition had suddenly no longer to be permanent. Otherwise the unionist population could safely vote for Independent Unionist or Labour representatives. This deprived unionist voters of any true choice of government (nationalist voters had effectively been deprived by the very existence of the Parliament).

The 1921 general election was explicitly fought on the issue of partition, being effectively a referendum on approval of partition. Thereafter general election timing was up to the Prime Minister, and almost always took place at a time when the issue of partition had been raised in a new crisis - either manufactured or real. This generally ensured the loyalty of protestant voters to the Unionist Party. The various Independent Unionists were usually accused of being dupes of Nationalists, however absurd such an accusation was. This was also the accusation against the Northern Ireland Labour Party, which had a cross-community membership and forever had the problem of trying to be a non-sectarian party in a fundamentally sectarian political atmosphere.

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