The modern Northern Ireland Assembly was first elected on 25 June 1998 and first met on 1 July 1998. However, it only existed in “shadow” form until 2 December 1999 when full powers were devolved to the Assembly. Since then the Assembly has operated intermittently and has been suspended on four occasions:
11 February – 30 May 2000
10 August 2001 (24 hour suspension)
22 September 2001 (24 hour suspension)
14 October 2002 – 7 May 2007
Attempts to secure its operation on a permanent basis have been frustrated by disagreements between the two main unionist parties (the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party) and Sinn Féin, the largest nationalist party. Unionists refused to participate in the Good Friday Agreement’s institutions alongside Sinn Féin until they were assured that the IRA had discontinued its activities, decommissioned its arms and disbanded.
The most recent suspension occurred after unionists withdrew from the Northern Ireland Executive after Sinn Féin’s offices at Stormont were raided by the police investigating alleged intelligence gathering on behalf of the IRA by members of the party’s support staff. The Assembly, already suspended, dissolved on 28 April 2003 as scheduled, but the elections due the following month were postponed by the United Kingdom government and were not held until November that year.
On 8 December 2005, three Belfast men at the centre of the alleged IRA spying incident (dubbed “Stormontgate”) were acquitted of all charges. The prosecution offered no evidence “in the public interest.” Afterwards Denis Donaldson, one of those arrested, said that the “charges should never have been brought” as the police action was “political.” On 17 December 2005, Donaldson publicly confirmed that he had been a spy for British intelligence since the early 1980s. Mr Donaldson was killed on 4 April 2006 by the Real IRA.