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United Kingdom - Government and Political Conditions (Notes)

The United Kingdom does not have a written constitution. The equivalent body of law is based on statute, common law, and 'traditional rights.' Changes may come about formally through new acts of Parliament, informally through the acceptance of new practices and usage, or by judicial precedents. Although Parliament has the theoretical power to make or repeal any law, in actual practice the weight of 700 years of tradition restrains arbitrary actions.

Executive power rests nominally with the monarch but actually is exercised by a committee of ministers (cabinet) traditionally selected from among the members of the House of Commons and, to a lesser extent, the House of Lords. The prime minister is normally the leader of the largest party in the Commons, and the government is dependent on its support.

Parliament represents the entire country and can legislate for the whole or for any constituent part or combination of parts. The maximum parliamentary term is 5 years, but the prime minister may ask the monarch to dissolve Parliament and call a general election at any time. The focus of legislative power is the 646-member House of Commons, which has sole jurisdiction over finance. The House of Lords, although shorn of most of its powers, can still review, amend, or delay temporarily any bills except those relating to the budget. The House of Lords has more time than the House of Commons to pursue one of its more important functions--debating public issues. In 1999, the government removed the automatic right of hereditary peers to hold seats in the House of Lords. The current house consists of appointed life peers who hold their seats for life and 92 hereditary peers who will hold their seats only until final reforms have been agreed upon and implemented. The judiciary is independent of the legislative and executive branches but cannot review the constitutionality of legislation.

The separate identities of each of the United Kingdom's constituent parts are also reflected in their respective governmental structures. Up until the recent devolution of power to Scotland and Wales, a cabinet minister (the Secretary of State for Wales) handled Welsh affairs at the national level with the advice of a broadly representative council for Wales. Scotland maintains, as it did before union with England, different systems of law (Roman-French), education, local government, judiciary, and national church (the Church of Scotland instead of the Church of England). In addition, separate departments grouped under a Secretary of State for Scotland, who also is a cabinet member, handled most domestic matters. In late 1997, however, following approval of referenda by Scottish and Welsh voters (though only narrowly in Wales), the British Government introduced legislation to establish a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. The first elections for the two bodies were held May 6, 1999. The Welsh Assembly opened on May 26, and the Scottish Parliament opened on July 1, 1999. The devolved legislatures have largely taken over most of the functions previously performed by the Scottish and Welsh offices.

Northern Ireland had its own Parliament and prime minister from 1921 to 1973, when the British Government imposed direct rule in order to deal with the deteriorating political and security situation. From 1973, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, based in London, was responsible for the region, including efforts to resolve the issues that lay behind the 'the troubles.'

By the mid-1990s, gestures toward peace encouraged by successive British governments and by President Clinton began to open the door for restored local government in Northern Ireland. An Irish Republican Army (IRA) cease-fire and nearly 2 years of multiparty negotiations, led by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, resulted in the Good Friday Agreement of April 10, 1998, which was subsequently approved by majorities in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Key elements of the agreement include devolved government, a commitment of the parties to work toward 'total disarmament of all paramilitary organizations,' police reform, and enhanced mechanisms to guarantee human rights and equal opportunity. The Good Friday Agreement also called for formal cooperation between the Northern Ireland institutions and the Government of the Republic of Ireland, and it established the British-Irish Council, which includes representatives of the British and Irish Governments as well as the devolved Governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Devolved government was reestablished in Northern Ireland in December 1999.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a 108-member elected Assembly, overseen by a 12-minister Executive Committee (cabinet) in which unionists and nationalists share leadership responsibility. Northern Ireland elects 18 representatives to the Westminster Parliament in London. However, the five Sinn Fein Members of Parliament (MPs), who won seats in the 2004 election, have refused to claim their seats.

Progress has been made on each of the key elements of the Good Friday Agreement. Most notably, a new police force has been instituted; the IRA has decommissioned its weapons, and the security situation in Northern Ireland has normalized. Since 2002, when the last devolved government was suspended, the British Government, with Irish and U.S. support, continued to push Northern Ireland's main parties towards a power-sharing agreement. In October 2006, intense negotiations led to the St. Andrews Agreement, which set up a Transitional Assembly, as the precursor for the return of devolved government. Parties were given until March 26, 2007 to work out arrangements for a power-sharing agreement. As part of these negotiations, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) insisted that Sinn Fein endorse policing structures, a key U.S. objective as well.

In a historic move, Sinn Fein's general membership finally agreed to support policing in late January 2007. New assembly elections were held on March 7, returning the unionist (Protestant) DUP and nationalist (Catholic) Sinn Fein again as the two largest parties. While party leaders Ian Paisley (DUP) and Gerry Adams (Sinn Fein) did not reach agreement on power-sharing in time for the March 26 deadline, they did hold a historic joint meeting that day. At the meeting, they agreed to begin a power-sharing government on May 8 with Paisley as First Minister and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein as Deputy First Minister. On May 8, 2007 Paisley and McGuinness took their oath of office in the presence of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, and a bipartisan U.S. presidential delegation headed by Special Envoy Paula Dobriansky, who was accompanied by Senator Ted Kennedy.

While most attributes of government have been devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, responsibility for security and justice remains in the hands of the Parliament in Westminster. The St. Andrews Agreement envisioned devolution of policing and justice by May 2008. Other outstanding issues relate to continued paramilitary activities. While the IRA has completely decommissioned its weapons and is no longer considered a terrorist threat, a few loyalist (Protestant) paramilitary groups have thus far refused to stand down or decommission. While one large loyalist paramilitary group recently announced it has placed its weapons 'out of use', it has not formally decommissioned them. There is also some concern about dissident republican groups who are believed responsible for a number of fire bombs in November 2006 around Northern Ireland.

The United States also is committed to Northern Ireland's economic development, and through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) almost $462 million was obligated to the International Fund for Ireland from 1986 to 2006. The fund provides grants and loans to businesses to improve the economy, redress inequalities of employment opportunity, and improve cross-border business and community ties.

Principal Government Officials
Head of State--Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Prime Minister (Head of Government)--The Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown, MP
Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs--The Rt. Hon. David Miliband, MP
Ambassador to the U.S.--Sir David Manning
Ambassador to the UN--Sir Emyr Jones Parry, KCMG

The United Kingdom maintains an embassy in the United States at 3100 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008 (tel. 202-588-6500; fax 202-588-7870).

Facts at a Glance: Geography - People - Government - Economy - Communications - Transportation - Military - Climate - Current Time - Ranking Positions - British Pound Exchange Rates
Notes and Commentary: People - Economy - Government and Political Conditions - Historical Highlights - Foreign Relations - Relations with U.S.

Facts at a Glance
Current Time
Ranking Positions
British Pound Exchange Rates

Notes and Commentary
Government and Political Conditions
Historical Highlights
Foreign Relations
Relations with U.S.

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