For many years, Government policy in Northern Ireland was that employment law should be broadly in line with the law in Great Britain and the only main distinction was discrimination on grounds of religious belief and political opinion. Most of the legislation passed in Great Britain was enacted in Northern Ireland, but at times there could be a delay, sometimes stretching to years before the implementation of legislation into Northern Ireland. For example, the Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order was passed in 1997, whereas the Race Relations Act 1976 was passed in Great Britain in 1976. Some legislation such as the Data Protection Act 1998 apply to Northern Ireland as well as the rest of the UK, while other legislation such as the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 have been repealed in the UK, but still remain in force in Northern Ireland.

In practical terms most employees’ entitlements and obligations will be the same in Northern Ireland as in Great Britain. However, although the general employment rights will often be the same, the particular legal references may be different due to Northern Ireland specific legislation. For example, a reference in a contract of employment should be to the Employment Rights (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 and not to the Employment Rights Act 1996. Particular care needs to be taken with compromise agreements because a failure to make reference to the appropriate legislation may affect the validity of the agreement. More information on compromise agreements can be found in this factsheet.

Following devolution in 1998, employment and discrimination law was a devolved power to the Northern Ireland Assembly, although confusingly, as highlighted above, some legislation such as the Data Protection Act 1998 and part of the TUPE Regulations apply to Northern Ireland as well as the rest of the UK. Within Northern Ireland responsibility in this area is split, with the Department of Employment and Learning for Northern Ireland (DELNI) being responsible for employment law, covering such issues as unfair dismissal, working time etc while equality/discrimination law is the responsibility of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and the tribunals system comes under the responsibility of the Department of Justice for Northern Ireland.

There are five different political parties in the Northern Ireland Executive and any legislative change involves passing the Executive level, then undergoing a consultation process under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 which involves an equality impact assessment before going through the Northern Ireland Assembly. This can be a prolonged process.

There have been signs of a distinct divergence between the employment laws in Northern Ireland and those in Great Britain which is set to continue. So it is very important that HR practitioners with responsibility for employees in Northern Ireland are aware of the differences, in order to comply with the law. 

The main areas of divergence include:

  • discrimination legislation
  • disciplinary and grievance procedures
  • conciliation and tribunal procedures
  • redundancy consultation
  • compromise agreements.

There is an election for new members of the Northern Ireland Assembly on 5 May 2016 which could trigger a re-shuffle of the departments within the Northern Ireland Executive. Progress has also stalled on a number of employment law issues.

This members-only factsheet provides an introductory overview of the key differences and important areas of employment law and does not cover all employment law provisions.

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