Most of the Assembly focus over the next few months will be on the sizes of its parties after the big election battle this May. Yet there are deeper questions which need considering. When, if ever, is the Assembly going to gain more powers? And why is the Assembly now, by some distance, the weakest of the three devolved institutions representing the countries of the UK?
For Assembly sceptics, giving it more powers would be tantamount to handing a five-year-old the keys to a car and inviting them to take a spin.
Those critics think the best thing about the Assembly is that at least it cannot do too much damage.
Popular support for devolved power-sharing remains high but when asked whether they think the parties cooperate well within the institutions, the public gives a snorting “no”.
Assembly survival, not the expansion of its competences, has been the aim.
The episodic crises and suspensions which haunt the Assembly have prevented the growth of powers.
For more than one-third of their lives, the Assembly and Executive have been suspended, so an increase in authority might have seemed bizarre.
The impact of collapses has not been merely the temporary abdication of powers. It has prevented the accrual of more. And where devolved powers exist, Westminster has intervened, as we have seen on same-sex marriage and abortion, with Irish language likely to follow.
There is one glaring exception of course. The devolution of policing and justice in 2010 was a major achievement, given the grimness of slain police officers, unrepresentativeness of the police service and rows over the Patten Commission’s report that filled the preceding decades.
But either side of that triumph, the Assembly has remained frozen in time, a 1998 model rusting badly in 2022. The institution’s modest powers and stultifying rules remain products of the nervousness and lack of trust that characterised emergence from conflict.
Whilst that was understandable and excusable then, it’s an embarrassment now.
Meanwhile, Scotland and Wales power ahead. David Cameron’s near-death experience in the Scottish independence referendum led to an emergency transfer of competences from Westminster to Edinburgh.
There are now Scottish rates of income tax. The Scottish Parliament at Holyrood determines land and building taxes and can borrow billions of pounds for capital projects. Just about everything else bar defence and foreign policy was already in Scottish hands.
Wales began devolved life with a glorified county council but one utterly transformed into a full-blown Senedd, or parliament. A 2011 referendum yes vote transformed a weak assembly into a proper legislature, the Welsh awarding themselves powers across 20 policy areas.
The 2014 Wales Act gave Cardiff powers over some taxes and the assembly-cum-parliament has moved from total dependence on Westminster block grant. True, the Senedd does not yet have the policing and justice powers enjoyed by Stormont but I would be amazed if they do not arrive in the next five years.
And what of the Northern Ireland Assembly? It still does not even control who votes in its elections. Scotland and Wales have extended the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds for their elections. Stormont couldn’t, even if it wanted.
I’m not dismissing the powers given to the Assembly.
They were considerable at the start, far more than Wales and not a million miles behind Scotland.
The problem is that the start is increasingly looking like the end. Where is the accrual plan? Whilst powers have been repatriated from Brussels, is there any clear evidence the Assembly will make use of them?
With councils being so weak, it is imperative that Stormont maximises its powers. Those who say you cannot safely transfer more powers to parties with wildly differing constitutional ambitions might care to look at Wales, where Labour and Plaid Cymru - unionism meets nationalism – have agreed a partnership deal.
The Northern Ireland Assembly sets business and domestic rates but has no taxation powers. Belfast remains at the mercy of the Barnett Formula and its formulaic handouts from Westminster. Last month’s report from the Independent Fiscal Commission made clear that the devolution of tax responsibilities to the Assembly is entirely feasible.
The most obvious Assembly tax device that could be used is to lower corporation tax, an idea that seems to have been around since about 3000BC but never comes to fruition. A cut from 19% (rising to up to 25% soon) rate to the lower bands of the Irish Republic (12.5% to 15% depending upon turnover) is logical even if revenue shortfalls would need compensation from Westminster. The Executive and Assembly should also have the right to set their own level of excise duties on fuel, alcohol and petrol. Given that issues of pollution, public health and climate change are dealt with locally, it makes sense to transfer the local levers affecting their outcomes to Stormont.
You will soon hear lots of noise about the looming election being crucial. In terms of gaining the upper hand in the age-old unionist versus nationalist rivalry, that might indeed be the case.
The fight for First and Deputy First Minister will be entertaining. But even for those parties most successful this May, the victories will border on the pyrrhic. For MLAs will be entering an institution which, compared to its vibrant, expanding, Scottish and Welsh counterparts, now looks closer to a parish council than a full-blown parliament.
Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool.