Friday 24 April 2009

Reducing the number of MLAs?

On 9 April the First Minister and the deputy First Minister (aka Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness) announced the creation of an efficiency review panel to look at, inter alia, the number of MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

"The FM/DFM would put to the Assembly for approval proposals for the panel’s remit, which might include the size of the Assembly and the departmental structure …"

Given that any change in the size of the Assembly would have to be agreed by the Assembly, it is quite unlikely to agree any significant reduction in the number of MLAs, but since simulations are always fun, let's look at some possible outcomes of such a review.

At present, with 108 MLAs (six per Westminster constituency), the Assembly includes eight parties (one of which is the vanity party of independent Kieran Deeny; and ignoring for now the issue of Gerry McHugh). Unionists have a slight majority of the membership – 51% - to nationalism's 41% and the 'others' who have 8% As such, the electoral system gives a slight advantage to unionism as it received less than 49% of the vote at the last election in 2007.

One of the proposals being considered is a reduction in the number of MLAs to five per constituency (giving a total of 90). While it is difficult to know for certain how this would turn out in practice, due to transfers, this blog's estimate of the outcome is that this proposal is skewed slightly towards nationalism, and would see the nationalist parties winning 44% of the seats (with 42.6% of the vote). Kieran Deeny and the Green Party would disappear, but the PUP might just hang onto their seat.

A more drastic reduction in the number of the seats to four per constituency (giving a total of 72) would give a disproportionate number of seats to unionism (54% of the seats) and would penalise nationalism (only 40% of the seats). Here the Assembly would be reduced to the five main parties only, with very little prospect of any independent or small party getting a seat.

The table below summarises the current situation, and shows this blog's estimates for the two main proposals being mooted, on the basis of the results of the 2007 election:

Other commentators have come to different results. The Alliance Party's Executive Director Gerry Lynch has calculated the following outcome for a 72-seat Assembly:

DUP: 26
UUP: 11
PUP: 0
SF: 20
Alliance: 6
Green: 0
Ind: 0

His position clearly requires him to have more faith in the Alliance Party than is warranted. Nonetheless, as the impact of the different pattern of transfers that a 72-seat model would create is unknown, he may turn out to be correct.

What is clear from such an analysis, though, is that Sinn Féin will never agree to a 72-seat model, as this would see the position of nationalism suffer, giving it a disproportionately small number of MLAs, which would in turn have a negative effect on the number of Executive positions that they could claim. Although a 90-seat model comes closer to a proportionate outcome, the fact that it reduces the unionist share of the Assembly compared with either the current situation or a 72-seat model means that it will not be acceptable to unionism.

So, after a long and convoluted "efficiency review" exercise, we can expect no change at all.


Anonymous said...

Another good piece - more power to you! One thing I'd disagree on: 'Sinn Féin will never agree to a 72-seat model, as this would see the position of nationalism suffer.'

Sinn Fein have signed up to a carve-up of the council districts which will massively favour Unionism. Who knows what they'd do re the Assembly if the DUP throws them a bone on policing.

Anonymous said...

bullshit anon, the council carve up does'nt favour unionism 'massively'.

Faha said...

This proposal by the DUP is actually an attempt to prevent an eventual nationalist majority in a 108 member Assembly. I did my own analysis for a 4, 5 and 6 seat constituencies. I used the 2001 census, adjusted for 8 to 17 year olds who will all be voters in 2011 and for mortality among the elderly ( 2 to 1 unionist) as well as adjustments for people in the census ( British military bases) who do not vote and added in a proportion of the None/Other group who would vote nationalist. Each constituency is followed by the percentage nationalist voting age population in 2011 and the quota is indicated above the 3 possible seat numbers per constituency. I have accounted for the fact that some Catholics vote for the Alliance Party in significant numbers in some constituencies.I have used the NEW boundaries which will be in effect for the 2011 election.

14.3% 16.7% 20%
6 5 4

Foyle(77.3%) 5 4 3
EastDerry(41.3%) ?3 2 2
W.Tyrone(69.4%) 4 4 3MidUlster(65.8%) 4 3 3FermanaghST(56.2%)?4 3 2Newry&Armagh(68%) 4 4 3SouthDown(71.4%) 5 4 3UpperBann(44.1%) 3 2 2NorthAntrim(28%) 2 1 1EastAntrim(20.4%) 1 1 ?0SouthAntrim(29.4%) 2 1 1Lagan Valley(14%) 1 0 0Strangford(17.2%) 1 0 0NorthDown(12.6%) 0 0 0NBelfast(45.7%) 3 2 2WBelfast(83.1%) 6 5 4SBelfast(44.7%) 3 2 2EBelfast(8.1%) 0 0 0

Total 51 38 31

On the surface, the DUP proposal seems fair since the current Assembly has 44 nationalists. Under the 90 member proposal the nationalist parties would lose 6 out of 18 eliminated seats and under the 72 member proposal they would lose and additioal 7 out of 18 additional seats eliminated. However, in the current 108 member setup, the nationalists parties would pick up seats in East Antrim, Strangford, South Down and possibly East Derry due to boundary changes and West Tyrone, Upper Bann and possibly Fermangh-SouthTyrone due to demographic changes. Thus, it would be a much steeper loss of nationalist seats ( 13 out of 18 seats eliminated ) in a 90 seat Assembly.The DUP strategy is that they would rather eliminate the seats rather than lose unionist seats to the nationalsit parties. If you look at the nationalsit paercentages in West Tyrone, Newry&Armagh and Mid Ulster there could be a 5th nationalist seat in all 3 by 2015. An additional nationalist seat in North Belfast ( UUP loss) or South Belfast ( Alliance loss) could result in a nationalist majority of 55 in 2015!!!
The DUP have done the demographic calculations, just as you have. They realize that the most effective strategy is to eliminate any nationalist representation in 5 constituencies. There would be no unionist representation in only one constituency-West Belfast. Essentially, the nationalist votes in those 5 constituencies would be wasted since they will not result in the election of a nationalist representative. This has the effect of attentuating the demographic changes since all those nationalist voters in those 5constituencies have no representation.
The DUP did an excellent job when they created the new District Councils. Armagh, Limavady and Moyle will be moved to unionist majority councils. This new proposal will be resisted by the SDLP . I am not too hopeful about Sinn Fein since they agreed to this review to begin with.
The Alliance Party would actually do poorly under a 72 seat Assembly plan. The quota would be 20%. The Alliance Party vote does not reach this in any constituency. They would win North Down and East Belfast with Green Party transfers. However, their other 5 seats would be in jeapordy since there will be few SDLP and UUP tranfers available to elect an Alliance candidate.

Horseman said...


Thanks for that fascinating and informative post. Unfortunately I think you may be correct. All the more reason, therefore, why SF and the SDLP have to nip it in the bud. I presume that SF, at least, are aware of the consequences as you have set them out? If not, your analysis should be more widely publicised in order that public opinion ensures that SF don't make the same kind of mistake that they made vis-à-vis the district councils. This is a vitally important issue that could be lost unless the ordinary voters and party members can be made to understand it.