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Making a reality of the Good Friday Agreement: the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Key Dates), (August 1999)



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Text: Northern Ireland Office ... Page Compiled: Martin Melaugh

Making a reality of the Good Friday Agreement: the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Key Dates)

The Northern Ireland Act is the principal vehicle for giving legal effect to the Good Friday Agreement. This page sets out:

  • How the Act became law: its passage through Parliament
  • What the Act says
  • Completing the legal preparations: subordinate legislation and other measures

Updated: August 1999

 

How the Act became law

The main vehicle for giving the force of law to the Agreement is the Northern Ireland Act, which was introduced in the House of Commons on 15 July 1998 and finally became law on 19 November 1998. The Act is a long and complex one, of 101 clauses and 15 schedules, setting out the principle of consent to change in constitutional status, establishing the detailed machinery necessary for the future administration of Northern Ireland, and making provision for the North-South and East-West bodies and for the new arrangements on human rights and equality.

The Act aims to give effect to the whole of the Agreement, so far as further legal provision is needed; but to add nothing to it, except as necessary to permit the new institutions to function effectively. It was prepared and introduced far more quickly than is usual for a Bill of this complexity, in order that the Agreement should be able to come into full effect without delay. The Government recognised there had as a result been limited opportunities to consult the Northern Ireland parties: it undertook to reflect carefully on points made by the Northern Ireland parties and in the parliamentary debates. In total it put forward around five hundred amendments in the light of this consultation.

The following links give a full account of the evolution of the Bill:

House of Commons stages

― Bill as introduced into the House of Commons
― Explanatory note on the Bill
― Notes on clauses on the Northern Ireland Bill
― House of Commons: second reading debate, 20 July 1998
― Committee: first day, 22 July
― Committee: second day, 23 July
― Committee: third day, 24 July
― Committee: fourth day, 27 July
― Report: 30 July
― Third Reading: 31 July
― Bill as amended and sent to the House of Lords

House of Lords stages

The Bill received an unopposed second reading in the House of Lords on 5 October, when Lord Dubs, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Northern Ireland Office, reviewed progress with the Agreement, and outlined the Bill and some amendments that would be made to it in the light of consultation with the political parties in Northern Ireland:

― House of Lords, Second Reading, 5 October 1998
― House of Lords, Committee first day, 19 October 1998
― House of Lords, Committee second day, 21 October 1998
― House of Lords, Committee third day, 26 October 1998
― House of Lords, Committee fourth day, 19 October 1998
― House of Lords, Report first day, 10 November 1998
― House of Lords, Report second day, 11 November 1998
― House of Lords, Third Reading, 17 November 1998

The House of Commons approved the amendments made in the House of Lords on 18 November:

― Commons consideration of Lords' amendments, 18 November 1998

The Northern Ireland Act accordingly became law the following day:

― The Northern Ireland Act as passed, 19 November 1998

Completing the legal preparations

Very little of the Act came into effect on its passing the main provisions will not come into effect until the appointed day for devolution under section 3, on which see below. There have been two orders so far commencing provisions of the Act:

― Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Commencement No. 1) Order 1999
― Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Commencement No. 2) Order 1999

Parts of the Act needed to be filled out by subordinate legislation orders under powers in the Act or elsewhere. There was also a need for further international instruments in respect of the North-South and East-West bodies.

The Secretary of State set out some of the details on 13 January 1999:

― Steps to the finishing line, 13 January 1999

The first such order, the draft Departments (Northern Ireland) Order, was laid before Parliament in late January 1999. It sets up a new structure of Northern Ireland departments, reflecting the Agreement reached between the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in December 1998. It also consolidates with a few necessary amendments the existing Northern Ireland law relating to Government departments:

― The Departments (Northern Ireland) Order 1999
― Motion for approval, House of Commons, February 1999 (Standing Committee)
― Motion for approval, House of Lords, 8 February 1999

It will need to be brought into effect (by order of the Secretary of State) before the appointed day under the Northern Ireland Act, so the new departmental structure is in effect on devolution. It will be accompanied by a transfer of functions order, which will reallocate functions between the new departments in accordance with the proposals agreed on 18 December 1998. (In the case of strategic planning functions, a more sophisticated division of functions was necessary than could be achieved by the transfer order: see the Strategic Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1999, debated in the Commons on March and the Lords on 4 March 1999).

Functions were conferred on the new implementation bodies, agreed on 18 December, by the North-South Cooperation (Implementation Bodies) (Northern Ireland) Order 1999, to which is attached an international agreement between the British and Irish Governments establishing the bodies:

― The North-South Cooperation (Implementation Bodies) (Northern Ireland) Order 1999
― Motion for approval, House of Commons, 8 March 1999
― Motion for approval, House of Lords, 9 March 1999

Some changes in the law consequential on devolution are embodied in the Northern Ireland (Modification of Enactments - No. 1) Order 1999:

― The Modification of Enactments (No 1 Northern Ireland) Order 1999
― Motion for approval, House of Commons, February 1999 (taken in Standing Committee)
― Motion for approval, House of Lords, 4 March 1999

Further international agreements were reached on 8 March 1999 in respect of the North-South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council, and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference:

― Agreement on the North-South Ministerial Council
― Agreement on the British-Irish Council
― Agreement on the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference

To bring about devolution, four orders will be needed: a devolution order under section 3 of the Act (which requires prior parliamentary approval), setting the appointed day for commencing Parts II and III, a commencement order bringing into effect related provisions, an order commencing the Departments (Northern Ireland) Order and an order for the associated transfer of functions mentioned above.

 


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