On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Northern Ireland returns to the polls

Voters in Northern Ireland will drag themselves to the polls today, less than a year on from their previous election.

Since 1998 the Northern Irish have elected a legislative Assembly with powers devolved from the UK Parliament, similar to those in Scotland and Wales.

Tomorrow’s snap poll results from a domestic political crisis over renewable energy policy.

In Northern Ireland the functioning of the Assembly and the governing executive are closely linked.

As a result of past peace process agreements, Northern Ireland has a unique executive duumvirate, in which the largest parliamentary political parties identifying with each of the unionist and nationalist ‘communities’ appoint two joint executive leaders – the First Minister and Deputy First Minister – whose powers are effectively the same.

(Unionists make up roughly 50% of voters, nationalists around 40%, and the remaining 10% hold a weaker identification with the province’s* historic divisions.)

Under the joint executive arrangement – designed to oblige the two communities to work together politically – the resignation of either of these leaders automatically triggers the resignation of the other.

In January this year the Sinn Féin party’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned as part of ongoing protests against the handling of a domestic energy program – the Renewable Heat Initiative – by the Democratic Unionist Party First Minister, Arlene Foster.

The Assembly (or at least, the Sinn Féin party) was unwilling to support a replacement nominee to reconstitute the coalition government, prompting the responsible UK government minister to dissolve the Assembly and call new elections.


The chamber of the Northern Ireland Assembly – or Tionól Thuaisceart Éireann (Irish); Norlin Airlan Assemblie (Ulster Scots) – at Stormont, Belfast

Northern Ireland’s Assembly is elected by the very representative single transferable vote system (STV), which assists in distributing political power among the divided communities and political movements in the province. Voters in each of 18 electoral divisions will elect 5 MLAs.

Unfortunately, the voter populations of the electoral divisions have drifted significantly out of alignment, now ranging from 61,000 to 83,000. So even with the STV voting system, each voters’ effective influence on electing MLAs has become noticeably unequal.

One of the main issues being watched is the voter turnout.

Turnout in Assembly elections was reasonable in the first election in 1998, at nearly 69%. But it has fallen at every election since, reaching just 54% at the elections in May 2016.

Not only to voters have little to be enthusiastic about at present political situation at Stormont, but the series of elections over the past two decades seems rarely to bring about political change.

Electoral politics in the province has proved remarkably stable over the two decades of its existence. Votes for the main parties seem to move only marginally. There have been no swinging electoral wins, or losses.

The total vote for unionist parties (DUP, UUP and others) has drifted down from 50% in 1998 to 44% in 2016. The total nationalist vote (Sinn Féin and the SDLP party) peaked at around 41% last decade, but has also declined to 36% in 2016.

The unionist parties have held between 54 and 58 seats in the 108-member chamber at every election since the Assembly was established, with nationalists holding between 40 and 45. The third category – independents and ‘cross-community’ parties – has slowly drifted up from 8 seats to 13.

But the unionists’ narrow majority of seats hasn’t meant they can dominate politics because – just as was intended – the ‘mandatory coalition’ rule forces the communities to work together, or not at all.

Under the power-sharing rules seats on the NI governing executive – previously 13 ministers, reduced recently to 9 – are allocated to all parties in proportion to the number of Assembly seats they hold.

Crucially, the largest parties of each of the unionist and nationalist categories (currently the DUP and Sinn Féin respectively) are obliged to take seats in the executive, and the executive government cannot hold office if they refuse.

Other Assembly parties that are eligible to take one or more ministerial positions are not obliged to do so. Every eligible party did take up their ministries from 1998 until 2016, but after the last election the smaller UUP, SDLP and Alliance parties declined and formed the first opposition, leaving DUP and Sinn Féin in coalition.

These developments may have led to the increasing acrimony between the remaining coalition parties. Strictly, the DUP cannot dominate the cabinet, because the minority also hold the right to declare any political measure a ‘cross-community’ issue, requiring special majorities to make decisions and pass legislation.

The absence since the last election of more diverse voices around the cabinet table may have removed a means of diffusing partisan antagonism.

Or perhaps the second generation of Northern political leaders are simply more fractious that the first generation, where old – and more serious – antagonists such as Ian Paisley, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness kept their historic differences under control to ensure the establishment of devolved government itself.

The Assembly is also shrinking. Set at 108 members since 1998, the chamber is relatively large compared to those in Scotland and Wales. Public opinion was said to be firmly in favour of cutting the number of politicians.

As a result, in 2014 the UK Parliament devolved legislative power to set the number of MLAs to the Northern Ireland Assembly itself. By mid 2016 – in an action rare in the legislative world – the Assembly had legislated to shrink itself. The 2016 election was unaffected, but for the future the number of members elected in each of the 18 electoral divisions was cut from six members to five.

The change was expected to come into effect for elections in 2020-21. The present snap poll has caught parties and sitting MLAs awkwardly on the hop, with every party likely to lose a few seats.

(The shrinkage hasn’t finished either. A looming reduction in the size of the UK House of Commons from 650 to 600 seats is expected to see the number of Northern Ireland constituencies shrink from 18 to 17. Because the provincial electoral division boundaries are directly based on Commons constituencies, another five Assembly MLA positions could go, reducing the chamber to 85 seats.)

In theory, with a higher vote quota needed to win seats (16.7% instead of 14.3%), the reduction from six seats to five in each division would be expected to hurt the smallest political parties hardest. Since the current micro-parties holding seats are cross-community and left-wing politically, there could be a political impact.

But the 5th-largest party (the Alliance, previously holding eight seats) and the micro-parties (the Greens and People Before Profit, currently holding two seats each) happen to have voter support that is highly geographically concentrated, a fact which may preserve their previous numbers of MLAs.

In fact the whole political landscape of the province shows high degrees of partisan geographical concentration, with all four of the larger parties having localities of very high and also very low voter support.

In any case, it is not clear that much will be solved by tomorrow’s election. Party politics in Northern Ireland has changed little in twenty years, due to the special power-sharing arrangements established to end ‘the troubles’.

Curiously, at the 2016 elections all five of the largest parties had a small, and more or less identical, loss of voter support in terms of vote share. Together with a fall in turnout, their supporters are drifting to minor parties, independents, or just staying home.

Polls indicate that the result of the current election may also be little partisan change, an even lower voter turnout, or a further slow drift to support for micro-parties – or all three – leaving a very questionable mandate for the new Assembly to resolve its political differences.

If tomorrow’s election follows historical precedent and produces a little-changed Assembly, and if the two main parties cannot agree on reestablishing the obligatory executive coalition, then either some of the power-sharing arrangements, or the Assembly itself, may have to go.


* Even the appropriate terminology used to describe Northern Ireland is a complex issue. The UK is said to have four ‘countries’ – the others being England, Wales and Scotland – but for historical reasons the northern division of Ireland is not often referred to as a “country” on its own. The term “province” is more often used, but that still raises the issue that Northern Ireland consists of only six of the nine historic counties of the Province of Ulster.


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