Section 1(1) deals with the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and enshrines the principle of consent of the "people" of Northern Ireland. This statement repeat and reenacts the Northern ireland Constitution Act 1973 s.1. However, section 1(2) deals with the possibility of Northern ireland leaving the Union - recognised as a possibility in treaty since 1985, but here in legislative form for the first time. Section 2 deals with the repeal of the Government of Ireland Act 1920; this has symbolic value as the 1920 Act set up the now discredited Stormont regime, but that regime has not existed since 1972.
Section 3 provides for initial devolution, with Parliamentary approval, once sufficient progress is made in implementing the Agreement. The provisions on legislative and executive powers in Parts II and II will then come into effect, and direct rule under the Northern Ireland Act 1974 by a British Secretary of State will end.
PART II: LEGISLATIVE POWERS
Section 6 sets out the legislative competence of the new Assembly. The Act reflects the Good Friday Agreement but many of the details are also very similar to the Scotland Act 1998.
The Assembly may not make laws that are beyond its competence, including on matters that are "excepted" (see Schedule 2 - these are matters which are better dealt with on a national UK basis) or are discriminatory or incompatible with rights under European Convention, or EC law, or that amend certain provisions of constitutional importance under section 7. The "Good Friday" Agreement (paragraph 27 of the Strand One section) envisaged the Assembly legislating for reserved matters subject to the Secretary of State's consent and parliamentary control; this is provided for by sections 8 and 15, with reserved matters being detailed Schedule 3. The Assembly has full authority for matters within the responsibility of existing Northern Ireland Office departments (see para 3 of Strand One) which therefore become "transferred matters" (defined as those not listed in the two schedules). The definitions of excepted, reserved and therefore transferred matters are detailed and complex and cannot be precisely separated. Therefore, the Assembly is given a limited right to make 'ancillary' excepted or reserved provision (eg creating a criminal offence in housing legislation), subject to the consent of the Secretary of State.
Any dispute as to whether the Assembly has exceeded its statutory competence is, in accordance with paragraph 28 of the Agreement, a matter for the Courts. The Attorney General for Northern Ireland can refer contentious Bills to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (section 11). After Acts of the Assembly have come into force, their competence can be questioned in any proceedings, but the matters may then be referred to the Court of Appeal of Northern Ireland with appeal or reference from it to the Judicial Committee (section 79 and Schedule 10).
PART III: EXECUTIVE AUTHORITIES
Part lll of the Act provides for a Northern Ireland Executive to run the devolved government. It begins with the selection of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (section 16), up to 10 other Ministers (section 17), plus junior Ministers (section 19). There is also provision for the establishment of statutory committees of the Assembly to advise each Northern Ireland Minister (section 29). Each Minister is to have full authority in the transferred field, subject to limitations in regard to Community law, Convention and anti-discrimination rights, excepted and reserved matters and international obligations.
But as a condition of holding office, any Minister must retain the confidence of the Assembly, and this may be lost if it is believed he is not committed to non-violence and exclusively peaceful and democratic means (section 30). In those circumstances, the Minister may be excluded from office for 12 months. Such an exclusion must be supported by at least 30 Assembly members (Including the First Minister and Deputy First Minister), reflecting cross-community support.
PART IV: THE NORTHERN IRELAND ASSEMBLY
Part IV regulates various details relating to the Assembly, including elections, disqualifications, aspects of procedure (including petitions of concern by which 30 or more members may require any vote to be won a cross-community basis: section 42), members' interests, powers to gather evidence, and remuneration.
PART V: NORTH-SOUTH MINISTERIAL COUNCIL AND BRITISH-IRISH COUNCIL
Part V makes provision for participation by Northern Ireland Ministers and junior Ministers in the North-South Ministerial Council and British-Irish Council in accordance with the terms of the Agreement (section 52). It also provides for the Assembly to legislate in respect of any agreements made in these Councils (section 53). This part further provides for attendance by Northern Ireland Ministers at relevant meetings of the British-Irish intergovernmental Conference (section 54) and for the Secretary of State to make orders conferring functions and powers on the initial, agreed implementation bodies (ie bodies which are to take executive functions covering both north and south) (section 55). These north-south aspects of the Act are amongst the most controversial as far as the Unionists are concerned.
PART VI : FINANCIAL PROVISIONS
Part VI deals with devolved finance. The actual level of funding is, as in Scotland, decided by the UK Treatury on the basis of settled, extra-statutory formulae.
PART VII: HUMAN RIGHTS AND EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES
A new Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and an Equality Commission are established (sections 68 and 73), which replace existing statutory bodies (such as the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights). Northern Ireland will be unique within the UK in having a statutory human rights commission. More generally, public authorities in Northern Ireland must observe a new duty to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity, implemented through equality schemes (section 75 and schedule 9). Part VII alsomakes it unlawful to engane in discrimination (section 76).