The Executive is co-chaired by the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Its official functions are:
- acting as a forum for the discussion of, and agreement on, issues which cut across the responsibilities of two or more ministers;
- prioritising executive and legislative proposals;
- discussing and agreeing upon significant or controversial matters; and
- recommending a common position where necessary (e.g. in dealing with external relationships).
- operate within the framework of the Programme for Government;
- support all decisions of the Executive and Northern Ireland Assembly; and
- participate fully in the Executive, the North/South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council.
The Ministerial Code allows any 3 ministers to request a cross-community vote. The quorum for voting is 7 ministers. At present, the Executive consists of 6 unionist, 5 nationalist and 2 other (Alliance Party) ministers.
The current system of devolution has succeeded long periods of direct rule (1974–1999 and 2002–2007), when the Northern Ireland Civil Service had a considerable influence on government policy. The legislation which established new departments in 1999 affirmed that "the functions of a department shall at all times be exercised subject to the direction and control of the Minister". Ministerial powers can be conferred by an Act of the Assembly and ministers can also exercise executive powers which are vested in the Crown.
Ministers are also subject to several limitations, including the European Convention on Human Rights, European Union law, other international obligations of the UK, a requirement not to discriminate on religious or political grounds, and having no power over reserved and excepted matters (which are held by the United Kingdom Government).
Ministerial decisions can be challenged by a petition of 30 Northern Ireland Assembly members. This action can be taken for alleged breaches of the Ministerial Code and on matters of public importance. The Speaker of the Assembly must consult political party leaders in the Assembly (who are often also ministers) before deciding whether the subject is a matter of public importance. Successful petitions will then be considered by the Executive.
The number of ministers and their responsibilities can be changed when a department is being established or dissolved. The proposal must be made by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister and be carried by a cross-community vote in the Assembly. The number of departments was initially limited to 10 but this increased to 11 upon the devolution of justice.
Ministers are disqualified from holding office if appointed to the Government of Ireland or as the chairman or deputy chairman of an Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) committee.
Read more about this topic: Northern Ireland Executive