Regardless of the reasons behind the current deadlock at Stormont, I’ve been thinking since the Assembly elections in May about some of the more… uh, interesting results from that contest – like how the TUV vote went from over 20,000 in 2017 to nearly 66,000 in 2022 yet still returned only one seat – how is that either proportional or representative?
I would consider myself a natural UUP supporter on the conservative-but-not-headbanger wing of unionism, but even I would have voted for the TUV in this past election (with transfers to other unionists + one for Aontu who I have a grudging respect for alongside profound disagreements with, natch!) had I still resided in Norn Iron… not necessarily as an endorsement of all their policies or practices, but mainly as a protest vote over both the Protocol and the contemptuous manner in which Northern Ireland majority opinion was treated – especially when it comes to the matter of legalized infanticide – by our mostly-in absentia, then-now thankfully-ex-Secretary of State (and whose resignation on my birthday was the best present I could have asked for!).
Aside from my firm belief that, while Stormont is operational, the Secretary of State should be both accountable and responsible to the Assembly itself, unable legally to go over the legislature’s head when it comes to transferred matters, I also think it’s high time we did away with constituencies for Assembly elections in addition to lowering the number of MLA’s to a size more proportionate to our population, from the currently-excessive 90 to a more sensible 80.
It’s the unspoken rule of Norn Iron politics that party-equals-preference much more so than in GB or the Republic, mainly because we continue to vote overwhelmingly on sectarian/constitutional lines, cemented in the policies of individual parties… it may be a sad truth 24 years on from the GFA but it is still a truth nonetheless. So I say stop pretending otherwise and let the law reflect the realpolitik on the ground.
So, for any future Assembly election, I would advocate abolishing separate constituencies and have NI itself be a single constituency-at-large, with people casting their ballots as normal on an STV method, only this time voting for a party and/or independent candidates to return an overall, and reduced, Assembly membership of 80.
In such circumstances, the recent Assembly election result would have played out in overall seat tallies as follows;
SF – 23
DUP – 17
Alliance – 11
UUP – 9
SDLP – 7
TUV – 6
Green – 1
PBP – 1
Aontu – 1
Independents – 4
As you can see, the result of such an election based on a uni-constituency basis would have produced arguably a better representation of the overall political landscape in the province than the actual 2022 result did, even with fewer members overall.
I would leave everything else as is except the changing of two pertinent matters to reflect the reduction in members; a) lowering the D’Hondt threshold for an Executive ministerial seat from 8 to 7, and b) lowering the threshold to trigger the Petition of Concern from 30 to 27 (one-third of Assembly membership)… of the latter, something the DUP, in their infinite wisdom, rather myopically failed to do when pushing for the former and a reduction in Assembly membership several years ago.
One last thing would also be absolutely essential; full implementation of the Assembly and Executive Reform (Opposition) Act 2016 by changing the relevant Standing Orders in the Assembly to bring it about. With the above result, you could theoretically have a 27-member Official Opposition (of which, having a sufficient number to trigger the Petition of Concern if they all voted in unison as a singular bloc is a fact not unnoticed by myself!) consisting of Alliance/UUP/SDLP with both enough members, publicly-allocated financial resources, and allocated Assembly time to hold a potential 41-member SF/DUP/independent (Miss Sugden again, perhaps?) Executive to account in an effective manner befitting a responsible legislature.
All these are merely my own suggestions… one thing’s for damn sure… the current set-up ain’t fit for purpose, alas… we can, need, and should do better.
Stephen Stewart is a Faulknerite unionist, a current exile living away from Northern Ireland, and proudly an analogue person in a digital age.