Fantasy D’Hondt

Northern Ireland Executive logoTime to play an early game of Fantasy NI Executive, or maybe more properly, Fantasy D’Hondt.

The order in which parties select ministries is determined by the size of the parties.

When the full D’Hondt process was last run on 8 May 2007, there were still only ten ministries. The DUP was the largest party with 36 elected MLAs, followed by SF (28), UUP (18) and then SDLP (16). The parties selected ministries in the following order.

  1. DUP – Finance & Personnel (Peter Robinson)
  2. SF – Education (Caitríona Ruane)
  3. DUP – Enterprise, Trade & Investment (Nigel Dodds)
  4. UUP – Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Michael McGimpsey)
  5. SDLP – Social Development (Margaret Ritchie)
  6. SF – Regional Development (Conor Murphy)
  7. DUP – Environment (Arlene Foster)
  8. SF – Agriculture and Rural Development (Michelle Gildernew)
  9. DUP – Culture, Arts and Leisure (Edwin Poots)
  10. UUP – Employment and Learning (Reg Empey)

The order in which parties select ministries (together with the number of opportunities they have to select) is dependent on the relative size of seats they capture at the election. (See the NI Assembly Education Service’s excellent handout on D’Hondt if you want to find out more.)

The Ministry of Justice was squeezed into the Executive table on 12 April 2010, and  is currently occupied by the Alliance Party’s leader David Ford. He was not elected by D’Hondt. Instead cross-community support was required as explained in this November 2008 letter from Peter Robinson and Martin McGuiness to Jimmy Spratt (Chair of the Assembly & Executive Review Committee).

Any Justice Minister elected during the period of these arrangements up until May 2012 would require a majority of Assembly members, present and voting, including a majority of designated nationalists and a majority of designated unionists. If during this period a vacancy in the office occurred, it would be filled in the same way.

The current NI Assembly standing orders seen to confirm that for now – and presumably until the May 2012 sunset – the Ministry of Justice will continue to be elected by cross-community vote outside of the main D’Hondt system.

It’s not feasible at this distance from the May 2011 Assembly election to speculate on the party order and full run down of ministry selections. But it is realistic to speculate on what the two largest parties might decide. (For the purposes of this post, I’ve assumed that the DUP and Sinn Féin remain the two largest parties.)

So next time round if Sinn Féin were to end up with most seats in the Assembly, will they continue to prioritise education, or will they instead look to widen their impact by controlling the Executive purse strings through DFP?

And if the DUP are still the largest party block, will they immediately grab education?

Feel free to comment below with your guesses of the order in which the top two parties will nominate, which ministries they will both select, and your reason why. If I remember in May 2011, I’ll come back and see who had the most accurate predictions.

Update – If you want to run the full D’Hondt using your predictions of party seat totals, then you can click through to the website – though watch out in case it gets the order wrong in the case of a tie in one round. (Mark – thanks)

, ,

  • Realistic Projectionist

    With an 8 seat cushion I think it’s only realistic to expect one party to be the largest bloc after the next election.

    I can’t see Sinn Fein making any big gains and the revised boundaries leave them a seat down in Lagan Valley before they start.

  • Iano

    Visit for a laugh

    Hard working Northern Irish and British journalists at work

  • slug

    My fantasy Executive – one capable of taking decisions.

  • Johnny Boy

    Sinn Fein almost certainly will lose a seat in Lagan valley, but the DUP stand to lose a lot more:

    Their second seat in West Tyrone was very lucky and probably will go to the SDLP (depending on Kieran deeney’s performance)

    Doesn’t look like they can hold three in East L’Derry as either the TUV or Alliance will probably get it.

    One unionist seat will go in South Down (probably to the SDLP) and while it looks more like the UUP that will lose, John McCallister is quite likeable and could probably pull in more nationalist transfers to slip in ahead of the DUP.

    Sinn Fein’s only gain that I see is in Upper Bann, but more likely at the UUP’s expense.

    I can’t see the DUP winning 4 in Strangford again. Possibly the SDLP will finally get there man. Another DUP lose I reckon.

    Will East Belfast send Mr. Robinson another message, or have they made their point? Possibly a loss to UUP or Alliance. However, I have no idea about the PUP anymore and whether Dawn Purvis will be an independent or what.

    TUV to gain the SDLP seat in North Antrim, but no DUP improvement on 3.

    SDLP or Alliance to lose a seat in S. Antrim, but to who… no idea.

    Danny O’Connor will finally win his seat back in East Antrim if he runs, if he doesn’t run, Sinn Fein may finish ahead but suffer from lack of transfers.

    the rest: no change that I can see.

    By that reckoning (taken with a JCB forkload of salt), the assembly could well be:

    DUP – 32
    Sinn Fein – 28
    UUP – 19
    SDLP – 18
    Alliance – 9

  • Johnny Boy – but back to the post in question … what ministries will the two top parties then take?

  • Johnny Boy

    Sorry I realised i forgot this, but by implication I thought that maybe the parties would have almost the same order, (maybe one more SDLP) so i thought the DUP and SF would hold on to what they have.

    That said, if the SDLP finish with more than UUP (quite possible if the SDLP hold onto a either seat in N. or S. Antrim) will it be the UUP who is denied a seat they are due (i.e. Justice) just like the SDLP are denied it now?)

    Also, if alliance did get 9 (gain in E. Belfast and E. L’derry) then suddenly they are in the reckoning for a seat anyway. In this case would they almost be obliged to take the Justice ministry?
    ( It would be pretty brazen if they took another ministry and then maintain the DUP-SF carve-up giving the justice ministry for nothing!!)

  • Nicole

    I still have the time to found my sweepout party: North of Ireland Fourth Way: “Forget aboout identity and capitalist interests; turn this place into a hippy community”. Then we’ll see what happens.

  • Sean Og

    Far too early to start considering this but Alliance winning E Derry and another in E Belfast? You have to be taking the p***!

  • Freya

    I asked this question recently in the Belfast Telegraph comments forum and nobody there could get beyond the argument about whether SF might top the poll or not. Glad Slugger is made of sterner stuff.

    My own opinion is that if SF do top the poll (and I’ll be disappointed if they do) they will take Finance first. I just can’t see that they would leave this post for the DUP if they had first pick.

    Whether or not the DUP would put their money where their mouth is and take Education first is another matter altogether. I don’t for a minute believe Education is as high on their agenda as Storey sometimes hopes it were. But, it would represent an easy (and triumphal) victory if they were to take it and reverse Ruane’s position on selection.

    Can anyone remind me, when Durkan was Finance Minister, what was the UUP’s first choice as they had topped the poll so would have had first pick?

  • UUP nominated Reg Empey for Enterprise Trade and Investment. The ever-reliable ARK website has the order of selection.

  • Don’t know if everyone will be as eager to take Finance by next May. If the cuts that are coming are as severe as expected, then would either the DUP or SF necessarily want to be Chainsaw Al? When there was plenty of clash sloshing around the system, Finance was the portfolio for lavishing money. It won’t be next May.
    For the sake of argument, I’m going to suggest the DUP will get most MLAs, even if they don’t top the poll etc (remember – it’s d’Hondt – the actual number of seats will determine which choices you get, e.g. first and third is very different to first and fifth).
    I think the DUP will go for the Finance brief again, as PR, at least, won’t see past it (and I don’t think they will have enough seats to get the third choice again). Somewhere between doing a bad job and it being a poison chalice, I can’t see Education being the first brief SF (or anyone else) wants this time around. I’d suspect that SF will go for the Enterprise, Trade and Investment brief. I think the external optics are quite good as it might raise the profile overseas. Similarly the mood music might be good if SF could demonstrate that they can deliver equitably distributed investment.
    That’s my two guesses.
    If we’re doing really fantasy d’Hondt – then the MLAs will meet a day early for a cross party discussion to facilitate the allocation of portfolios to the individuals best suited to the particular role and the order of selection and ministry taken by each party will be amicably agreed in advance …

  • Drumlin Rock

    would make no odds John, with the DUP’s love of musical chairs they only have the seat warmed before moving, PR likes to shuffle often and keep them on their toes.
    I wonder will SF chance it this time and pluck the mickey mouse DCAL dept. so they can push the Irish Language?

  • Greenflag

    The Lord has spoken on this matter in no uncertain terms

    From today’s BBC NI

    ‘The former DUP leader Ian Paisley, Lord Bannside, said he believed the creation of a single grand unionist party is a “non-runner”.

    On the possibility of a Sinn Fein First Minister in the future, he said he will have to accept the will of the people.

    Lord Bannside’s comments were in an interview for a Belfast Newsletter series on the future of the union.

    Questioned about unionist unity, he dismissed the notion of one grand political party.

    He argued that limiting the choice open to voters is not in the interests of the province but merely in the interests of those who want power.

    Asked whether he could accept a Sinn Fein First Minister in the future, the former DUP leader says he would have to accept the will of the people.

    However he points out that Sinn Fein didn’t become the majority party on his watch and pledges to play his part in preventing that happening in the future.”

    Can’t see very much change in 2011 anyway other than a few brought about by the late Horseman’s apocalyptic demographics .

    The SS Titanic is still on course having departed Queenstown and should arrive in the USA on schedule 😉
    barring unforeseen circumstances .

  • I can’t see it, unless it is their third selection (it will all come down to the order of selection, regardless). With only three portfolios left last time, including DCAL, they opted for agriculture. With such a large vote base outside of Belfast, I’d have thought SF will want at least one of DRD or Agriculture. I can’t see implementing any sort of language act or promoting the Irish language being possible via DCAL or any other department so, as a one trick pony selection it would make no real sense. DCAL will no doubt have it’s budgets trashed as well, relative to other departments. Would a SF minister want their role to be confined to endlessly arbitrating over which Arts groups don’t get funding? I doubt it.
    Of course, it might depend what else they have picked up. It will be interesting to see, if SF don’t take Education as their first choice (which will amount to a diplomatic sacking of Catriona Ruane), who else will take it on. My bet is that everyone will bottle it and it will be selection number 5, DUP, with Nelson in the chair.

  • Freya

    Thanks Alan.

  • Mark McGregor


    Since no one took up the challenge, here’s my guess;

    1. DUP – Finance & Personnel (Wilson)
    2. SF – Culture, Arts and Leisure (Caitríona Ruane) – they won’t fully back down
    3. DUP – Education (Nigel Dodds)
    4. UUP – Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Michael McGimpsey)
    5. SDLP – Agriculture and Rural Development (Attwood)
    6. SF – Regional Development (Conor Murphy)
    7. DUP – Environment (Arlene Foster)
    8. SF – Social Development (Michelle Gildernew)
    9. UUP –Enterprise (Empey)
    10. Alliance – Employment and Learning (Lo)

    Plus – Alliance – Justice (Ford)

    I have the DUP losing a d’hondt seat on Executive to Alliance and Alliance still being only option for Justice.

  • Mark McGregor


    Sorry, ran d’hondt and the order of selection would change for me so I have a different prediction:

    1. DUP – Finance (Wilson)
    2. SF – DCAL (Ruane)
    3. UUP – Education (McGimpsey)
    4. DUP – Enterprise (Dodds)
    5. SDLP – Health (Attwood)
    6. SF – Agriculture (Gildernew)
    7. DUP – Environment (Foster)
    8. UUP – Regional Dev (new leader)
    9. SF – Social Dev (Murphy)
    10. Alliance – Employment (Lo)

    Plus, Alliance – Justice (Ford)

  • Ulick

    Can’t work out here whether you are being serious or not Mark. What makes you think SF would go anywhere near DCAL, smallest department with smallest budget and one they have passed over twice previously.

  • Mark McGregor


    Being deadly serious.

    I think they will admit internally Ruane has screwed up Education big time and damaged the party with a huge chunk of the electorate but so as not to make it totally obvious externally will select her as first choice for a Dept. Unwilling to risk her in another high risk/profile/budget Dept they may dump her somewhere her skill set might actually work – DCAL. Then palm it off as both a vote of confidence in her and trying to undo the chaos the DUP have created in ‘cultural equality’.

    I’m a cynic. A cynic that doesn’t think SF will be willing to demonstrate they also think Ruane fucked up and will go with a shambles that means they lose a high profile brief to cover her tracks.

  • Mark – interesting. And in both predictions you see unionists firmly grasping the Education nettle.

  • Ulick

    That kind of thinking is practically Machiavellian but I still don’t buy it. I can’t see them sacrifice a real ministry for the symbolic bells and whistles of DCAL.It might keep the tabloid readers happy but they’d have a hard time selling it to the rank and file.

  • Mark McGregor


    If there was a titter of strategic wit left in SF they would have sacraficed both Ruane and grassroots opinion to work towards bringing a clearly skilled de Brun back from Europe to deal with the Education brief.

    She may not make friends easily but she has demonstrated she’s head and shoulders above 99% of the MLAs in working a complex brief.

    (God, that was hard to write!)

  • Mark McGregor


    I see the DUP getting first pick and inevitably taking Finance. I don’t think SF will risk Education again, though they will get 2nd choice. I then see the UUP having 3rd shot and taking Education as the hottest topic for everyone but utterly ballsed up by Ruane. Even with budget cuts they can’t make a bigger mess tha Ruane – a must pick if SF don’t take it.

    Though this is fantasy d’hondt so I could be a million miles out.

  • By the way, Update – If you want to run the full D’Hondt using your predictions of party seat totals, then you can click through to the website – though watch out in case it gets the order wrong in the case of a tie in one round. I’ve preconfigured it for local parties and ten ministries. (Mark – thanks for the tip)

  • Tochais Síoraí

    There is a Unionist nightmare scenario where both Alliance and SDLP could each take a DUP cabinet seat.

    A few TUV seats would help this along nicely wouldn’t it?

  • Hmmm. Am I not right in thinking that the parties agree who will take what ministry in advance?

  • lamhdearg

    If the dup where to end up with education would their minister have the power to cut funding to irish language schools?.

  • The first time they didn’t. Second time – since everyone has done the D’Hondt calculation beforehand and knows the order – they did announce the partitioning of the portfolios a day or two before the formal nominations in the chamber.

    Really I suspect this was so they could do the internal party machinations out of the public eye. The legislation allows for a 15 minute delay in nominating … which isn’t long (or sightly) if you want to bundle your party’s top team out of the Assembly chamber and down a corridor to discuss which ministry you’re taking if another party makes a surprise choice.

  • Mick Fealty

    I agree with Ulick. SF’s investment is in Education, DCAL is a diversion from the party’s countercyclical investment plan for Irish medium schools. They would be nuts to give that to the UUP…