Ending co-terminosity

One of the less frequently used buzz-words in Northern Irish politics is “co-terminosity”, which is shorthand for the fact that members of the Northern Ireland Assembly are elected from constituencies with the same boundaries as those used for Westminster elections. It seems to me that co-terminosity has had its day, and if the long-postponed local government reforms come in, it would make a lot of sense to shift to a system where Assembly members are elected from constituencies which are based on the new local council areas rather than the Westminster election boundaries.

Co-terminosity goes back to 1921, when the 10 Westminster constituencies (three of which were two-seaters) were used as the basis for electing the first 52 members of the Northern Ireland House of Commons, and again in 1925. Arguably it continued until 1948, as the boundaries for the Stormont single-seat constituencies all nestled within the previous Westminster constituencies, which were in turn linked to the local government districts (ie the counties, and Belfast City). In 1948 the link was broken, as the Westminster boundaries were revised and the two-seat constituencies broken up, without reference to where the Stormont boundaries were. However, all elections to regional bodies from 1973 on again took the Westminster boundaries as their basis; these days they elect six from each of the 18 constituencies, giving a total of 108 for no very good reason.

Three recent developments seem to me to spell the end for co-terminosity – not in the current round of boundary changes, but probably in the next or the one after that. First off, co-terminosity has been killed off in both Scotland and Wales. In Scotland, the number of Westminster seats was cut from 72 to 57 in 2005, but the 72 old seats still provide the basis for the 73 single-member seats in the Scottish Parliament (the Orkney and Shetland Isles elect two MSPs but only one MP) and will continue to do so after the next election when the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster will be further cut to 50. In Wales, the existing 40 parliamentary constituencies will also continue to be used for Welsh Assembly elections even after the number of Welsh MPs at Westmister is slashed from 40 to 30 at the next election. There is no reason for Northern Ireland to stick more religiously to keeping the boundaries aligned than the other devolved systems do.

Second, the new system of boundary revisions introduced by the present coalition puts the House of Commons into a state of perpetual revolution. The 650 MPs are to be cut to 600 at the next election. More significantly, the boundaries of the 597 non-island seats are to be revised every five years. Northern Ireland’s small size and small number of seats mean that ripple effects of even quite a small population movement can be significant across the whole territory. In particular, it’s quite possible that the number of Westminster seats allocated to Northern Ireland may change in future – had NI’s electorate been only 0.5% lower when the calculation was made, there would have been only 15 seats to draw instead of 16 (and Scotland would have had 51 instead of 50). So Westminster boundaries are no longer going to be a stable frame of reference. It’s maybe not a big deal to inconvenience one MP per seat, but if it’s six MLA’s as well then it will get tiresome.

Third, the long-postponed local government reform appears to be nearing legislative effect. This will create a new and hopefully long-lasting political framework for local councils, one which could equally well be used as the basis of Assembly constituencies. Using the published figures it is rather easy to allocate 108 Assembly seats among the 11 proposed new councils (Fermanagh and Omagh 7, Antrim and Newtownabbey 8, Lisburn and Castlereagh 8, Mid Ulster 8, Causeway Coast and Glens 9, Derry and Strabane 9, Mid and East Antrim 9, Newry, Mourne and Down 10, North Down and Ards 10, Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon 12 and Belfast 18). One would probably want to split these into Assembly constituencies electing between 4 and 7 MLAs, and that would require an independent review process with public consultation; and population shifts would require some fairly regular revision. But, assuming that the new councils have anything resembling the 40-year lifespan of their predecessors, they will be a much more robust basis for electing Assembly members than the ever-changing Westminster seats.

I can’t see this happening in the current round of revisions, which are too far down the road to stop. But in five or ten years’ time, when the new local councils are fully established and up and running, and politicians (and activists) have started to get annoyed with the five-yearly revision of the Westminster seats, I suspect that the end of co-terminosity will be inevitable.

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  • alex gray

    Stormont derives its legislative competence from the Westminster Parliament and it makes sense for its multi-member constituencies to be based on Westminster seats. The councils are subsidiary creatures of Stormont and it is hardly appropriate to make their structure the architecture for Stormont seats. Removing the Stormont architecture from the Westminster architecture is one more step away from the principle of the union of the United KIngdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and is more backdoor creeping Irishism. We should keep the electoral system simple as at present and not detach our structures from Westminster structures.

  • Stormont derives its legislative competence from the Westminster Parliament and it makes sense for its multi-member constituencies to be based on Westminster seats.

    1) Why does that argument not apply to Wales or Scotland?

    2) Why does it make sense for Stormont constituencies ti be shaken up every five years?

    Removing the Stormont architecture from the Westminster architecture is one more step away from the principle of the union of the
    United KIngdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

    Again, as with Scotland and Wales?

    and is more backdoor creeping Irishism.

    So I’m a crypto-Nationalist now? Makes a change!

  • Reader

    Nick Whyte: Using the published figures it is rather easy to allocate 108 Assembly seats among the 11 proposed new councils
    I would rather get rid of 12 MLAs *before* getting rid of co-terminosity, please.
    Also, I was trying to work out who would lose out most if co-terminosity was retained with a hyperactive boundary condition. Psephologists suffer most, then political parties. Constituents hardly suffer at all. Shouldn’t you be declaring an interest in the outcome?

  • Reader,

    if co-terminosity was retained with a hyperactive boundary condition. Psephologists suffer most… Shouldn’t you be declaring an interest in the outcome?

    I’m busted! Though in all honesty, I don’t think the hyperactive boundary condition for Assembly seats is terribly good for constituents either; they will have even less idea who represents them at each level.

  • orly

    If you follow the rough numbers for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, for our population we “need” about 30 MLAs.

    That’s if you accept that we need Stormont at all. I’d argue we don’t as it achieves little, costs a lot, and is full of no hopers and convicted criminals there but for one purpose – to extract a pay packet from it.

  • BluesJazz

    Orly, everyone knows this. But most of us cannot be arsed to vote for the placebo 6th form assembly. Those that do vote robotically on a tribal level, including the pseudo’ non tribal ‘Alliance wannabee middle class.
    We’re ruled from Westminster, but pretend not to be. That was the deal. That’s what all the murders were for.
    That’s how the cookie crumbles.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Nic, practically co-terminosity between councils & Stormont makes much more sense than the existing plans, but once again the current 11 council model dosn’t help as the constuencies are on the large size, a 15 model would give you 5 to 7 seats, dividing the biggest ones if necessary.
    The dogs dinners that are the current boundary review and RPA proposals should both be scrapped and a bit of common sense applied.

  • DR,

    I’m glad we agree on the main point! I think that the larger councils among the 11 proposed could be split into two (or for Belfast three or four) constituencies. Alternatively if we crank down the total number of MLAs then this becomes less of a problem.

    While I don’t share your complete hostility to the current RPA proposals, I agree that an opportunity has been missed to redesign ab initio. But I think they are likely to go through.

  • Drumlins Rock

    They prob will Nick, but worth a try to hilight their short comings, have to say the new westminster boundaries make the council proposals look sensible!
    What is the most you could elect on STV? I don’t think mandates under 10% are that strong, could give alliance a couple of opening outside the pale however.
    Party wise structures work alot easier with Stormont Council Co-termosity, with one MP serving several associations & offices better than planning council business across 2 or 3 constituencies.

  • DR,

    I agree that once the quota dips below around 10% you start to lose accountability. (Though as it is, you have a pretty good chance of being elected from around the 8% mark.) 7 seats is a reasonable maximum, which is why I proposed 4-7 in my original post.

    The South Antrim Assembly constituency elected 10 members of the 1982-86 Assembly. I don’t think any other Northern Ireland seat ever elected more than 8. Local council DEAs at the moment vary between 5 and 7; when they were first set up in 1973 there were a few 4-seaters and 8-seaters. The 1973 Assembly (and 1975 Constitutional Convention) varied between 5 and 8 with most on 6 or 7 seats.

    The Irish Free State elected 19 senators in 1925 by a nationwide STV election of all voters aged over 30. That was generally regarded at the time as far too big and it never happened again.

  • I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing for some time in a 26-county context, and come to the conclusion that it’s generally desirable for delegates to government level X to be elected on the basis of the administrative divisions below X, particularly in a multi-member system such as Stormont or the Dáil.

    TDs generally rise from the ranks of councillors, and those with a profile in a particular county use the local-boy argument against rivals in the same constituency, and even the same party (Carlow-Kilkenny is a notorious example). The same also happens in NI where constituencies are split between different council areas. If we want to cleanly remove the geographical argument from politics we can either make constituencies coterminous with administrative areas, or subdivide each administrative area into a whole number of parts.

    The former method is suitable for multi-member systems such as Stormont or Leinster House. The latter is more suitable for single-member systems such as Westminster (where it is a rule of thumb) or the US Congress (where it is enshrined in the constitution); or in multi-member systems where the constituencies would be too large (e.g. Dublin City).

    I would extrapolate this further and make it a general rule for other sorts of constituencies, such as EP elections. If one counts the stillborn English regions as “administrative areas” then this is the case already.

  • DR,

    The Republic currently uses constituencies of between 3 and 5 members. If a constituency grows large enough to support 6 members it is split. Purely subjectively I think this works well, although there have been perennial arguments raised for both changing to a single-member system (which I don’t think will get much traction) and also for increasing constituency sizes. The prima facie argument for increasing the size of constituencies is that it would reduce parish-pump politics, but I’ve already argued above that the mismatch between the local “patch” of a councillor and that of a TD actually contributes to the problem.

    I would stick with the stipulation that no constituency should be more than twice the size of the smallest one and work backwards from there.

  • Shibboleth

    If it takes rigidly sticking co-terminosity to reduce part of our MLAs then so be it. Why do we need 108 MLAs lording it over weeds on paths and other trivia. http://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/local/weed_out_ludicrous_dup_motion_mla_1_3114917

    In New Zealand they run a 4.4 million sovereign state using just 120 parliamentarians rather than a 1.6 million country over-run by 108 MLAs, 18 MPs, 3 MEPs and approximately 26 Lords. If they were all single-jobbed they would be in excess of 150 with a lot of decisions still being made for us by others in Westminster and Europe.

  • Shibboleth

    Nicholas: I can’t believe you’re even suggesting retaining 108. I wonder how many Slugger readers really think our legislative assembly is a success at legislation. Only people with an interest in political job retention or who fear their political interest may not get elected unless there are 6 seats will want more of the same.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Sibboleth, New Zealand also has 16 Regional Authorities, AND 67 Territorial Authorities, 1.5 million people live in Auckland so many of the others are smaller than our councils.
    We are going down to 16 MPs & 96 MLAs probably, thinbk that is fair enough for now, Nick’s suggestion allows much more flexibility in the numbers so the reduction could be gradual over time rather than a drastic drop to 80.
    There is no sign of tribal politics ending yet, and cutting numbers too quick will reinforce that, the last few election cycles have shown big changes, so don’t rule it out for the future.
    AG, have got used to the 5 & 6 member ones, with our 4/5 party system election might get too predictable if things end up a seat each, competition keeps them on their toes better.

  • There may well be too many MLAs (I believe there are) but it is a fallacy to argue that NI should have the same number of elected representatives per head of population as some arbitrary other country of differing size and constitution. Yes, NZ may have 120 MPs for 4.4 million people, but by that argument the USA should have 8000 members of congress.

    MPs are not comparable to nurses or policemen – the amount of work they do is not proportional to the number of people they serve. It is meaningless to measure legislation on a per-head basis.

  • Shibboleth

    AR – ah yes you defeated the argument I never made. The point was not that you need to have x representatives per million voters but rather some countries run a sovereign nation on effectively a similar number of representatives as our lot but our lot don’t appear to be doing very much despite the over-representation and if co-terminosity reduces it then so much the better but it would be even better if we got rid of some more. There are some gifted people among our legislators but unfortunately there’s deadwood too.

  • Shibboleth, I’m not in favour of keeping 108 MLAs, and I should also have provided figures for the 96 that we will have from the next election. (That would give Fermanagh and Omagh 6, Lisburn and Castlereagh 7, Mid-Ulster 7, Causeway Coast and Glens 7, Mid and East Antrim 7, Derry and Strabane 8, North Down and Ards 9, Newry, Mourne and Down 9, Antrim and Newtownabbey 10, Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon 10 and Belfast 16.)

    In particular I regret if this obscured my basic argument that it is perfectly easy to allocate any number of MLAs, 108, 96 or 75, among the local government districts, and will be more convenient for voters and poltiicians (not to mention psephologists).

    I’m somewhat agnostic on the overall numbers; it seems to me that pretending that Northern Ireland is like New Zealand kind of misses the point, but I can also accept that the 78 of the 1973 and 1982 Assemblies was quite enough.

  • Shibboleth

    NW, I never pretended any such thing. NZ was used as an example that a larger nation can survive on 120 doing much more than our lot do. Hence the link to trivia in debate.

    BTW thanks for the new numbers. Having spoken to one of our 3 local newspaper editors I know in informal conversation he favours a 1/3 reduction in MLAs

  • Shibboleth

    Co-terminosity with councils would presumably result in a mirroring to a large degree of council composition.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Shib, good job editors don’t run the country then. 🙂 actuslly it prob right long term.

    Nicholas, if we gave Fermanagh 5 seats and worked backwards from that could you get away with only Belfast being sub divided (fix it to the Lagan for simplicity) I think most would live with F&O being slightly over represented, would ABC be manageable on 8 seats?

    Fermanagh and Omagh 5, Lisburn and Castlereagh 6, Mid-Ulster 6, Causeway Coast and Glens 6, Mid and East Antrim 6, Derry and Strabane 6, North Down and Ards 7, Newry, Mourne and Down 7, Antrim and Newtownabbey 8, Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon 8 and Belfast 6 + 6, total 77.

    As an interim give everyone an extra seat for one term, bringing it up to 88.

  • Drumlins Rock

    shib, not necessarily, even last year there was quite a difference in LG & assembly votes, ie. in FST I think the UUP outpolled the DUP at LG, or was neck in nect, but the assembly difference was still quite large, encumbancy is always a factor.

  • DR,

    Your instinct turns out to be right – taking Fermanagh+Omagh/5 as a divisor I get Lisburn and Castlereagh 6, Mid-Ulster 6, Causeway Coast and Glens 6, Mid and East Antrim 6, Derry and Strabane 6, North Down and Ards 7, Newry, Mourne and Down 7, Antrim and Newtownabbey 8, Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon 8 and Belfast 13 (ie 6+7). For a total of, believe it or not, 78 a la previous Assemblies.

    You’re also right that the UUP outpolled the DUP in local elections in FST last year, on current boundaries.

  • Shibboleth,

    As DR points out, there’s often quite a significant degree of variation between council votes and Assembly votes. On my site I have mapped this out for each constituency (inevitably a bit speculative in cases where the boundaries don’t coincide). For instance, some councils have traditionally had a very high vote for independents and micro-parties which then does not translate to other elections – Newtownabbey, North Down and Moyle most particularly, though it’s a fairly common phenomenon in urban electoral areas.

    Last year there was also a consistently observable effect of the UUP doing worse in the Assembly elections than the council elections, to the point where their council performance repeated in the Assembly elections would have saved their seats in East Londonderry and probably North Belfast, and would also have gained them a seat in Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

    This variation isn’t especially surprising – there is if anything greater variation between Assembly and Westminster votes which use exactly the same constituencies at present (eg North Down, South Belfast, East Belfast, Fermanagh and South Tyrone).

  • Drumlins Rock

    Nic, think some old fashioned Belfast folk could object to the number 13, that number suits the second city better 🙂 I didn’t guess too bad there.

    Go a step further and bring in STV for Westminster, B, L&C 4 seats, ND&A, NM&D, AB&C 5 seats, CC&G, M&EA, A&N, 4 seats, D&S, F&O, MU 3 seats, dreaming I know, but remember Westminster can do just about anything.

    Have did some figures for the new Mid Ulster council, would give SF 16, DUP 9, UUP 7, SDLP 7, Ind R 1. That would make it SF 3, and one each the rest if it were 6 seats.