A smaller Northern Ireland Assembly?

Martin McGuinness has today added his support to the notion of cutting the Northern Ireland Assembly to 90 seats from the current 108, ie to five per constituency instead of six.

How would this have affected the 2011 election? It’s a fairly straightforward calculation to raise the quote in each seat from 14.29% to 16.67% and work out who would have won. Of course, one has to apply the caveat that if there had been only five seats rather than six up for grabs in each constituency, parties might have managed their nominating strategies differently. But bearing that in mind, it’s reasonably clear in the majority of cases that the party that won the sixth seat in 2011 would likely not have won if there had been only five seats up for grabs. This applies fairly clearly in Lagan Valley (DUP), Strangford (UUP), North Antrim (TUV), East Antrim (SF), East Belfast (UUP), South Antrim (DUP), East Londonderry (DUP), South Belfast (SDLP), Newry and Armagh (SF), Foyle (SDLP) and West Belfast (SF).

There are some cases where it gets a bit trickier – especially if the last elected and the runner-up came from the same party or from similar community backgrounds, it’s likely that their combined votes would actually have excluded someone else. So for North Down, after running the numbers several times, I think there are not quite enough Alliance transfers to elect the Greens to the fifth seat, though it is very close; in Upper Bann, Nationalist transfers would save the SDLP and deprive the UUP; in North Belfast, however, there would not be enough SDLP votes to pull them ahead of the third DUP candidate; in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, SDLP transfers would pull the third Shinner ahead of the DUP; in West Tyrone, however, Unionist tranfers would keep the SDLP out; Mid Ulster is also very difficult to call, but my gut says that SF would just fail to get that third seat despite having 49% of the vote; and South Down is a fairly clear case where the Unionists would lose if the sixth seat goes.

In general, one expects a broad reform reducing the number of seats to hit the largest parties most in absolute terms, and the smallest parties most in relative terms. But this is not what I see happening here. The losers by my count are disproportionately from the medium-sized parties. Starting with the smallest groups, Jim Allister would not have won the TUV’s sole seat in North Antrim had there been only five seats there, and the Greens would probably not have retained their seat in North Down. But the late David McClarty would have still won in East Londonderry, and, perhaps rather surprisingly, all eight Alliance seats would have been safe enough – in a couple of cases, they would have benefited from Nationalist transfers which in the real election went to runners-up.

All of the big parties would lose four seats each – the DUP down from 38 to 34 (if the Greens are unlucky in North Down), SF down from 29 to 25, the UUP from 16 to 12 and the SDLP from 14 to 10. Unionist membership of the Assembly remains at 52%, the Nationalist proportion dips imperceptibly from 40% to 39%. This would not have affected the allocation of ministries in the Executive between parties. But it would certainly have affected the relative dominance of the largest two parties within thier respective groups.

It has to be said that these numbers are very speculative, and also vulnerable to small variations. The UUP and SDLP both had a pretty lousy election in 2011, and a small uptick in their support could shift the notional results quite a bit. But the point remains that raising the quota from 14.3% to 16.7% particularly affects parties whose support is at around that level in a lot of constituencies.

(Fuller version here.)

  • Bryan Magee

    Its an interesting analysis Nicholas. I suppose the threshold for Petition of Concern would have to fall too?

    But what I found quite surprising – very surprising – was that SF were essentially coming completely on board with one of the things the DUP have been saying for years and which they have been resisting.

    Nicholas: Perhaps it is to see off challenges from, shall we say, the parties that might threaten SF, such as left wing anti-establishment parties (one of their councillors got elected in Belfast) and/or dissident republican groups, etc and others on the unionist side like TUV.

  • Michael Henry

    Jim Allisters profile has went up a lot since the last Assembly elections- he will have nothing to worry about in a 5 seater especially if Paisleys son goes independent – a lot of X DUP support in Jim’s area are going to a new home shortly- it’s to be seen if they go independent or TUV-

    A smaller Assembly- A smaller Britain ( if Scotland says YES )- those Cuts seem to be the norm now-

  • Zeno1

    It doesn’t really matter what Martin says as the SF Ard Chomhairle will make the decision in Dublin.

  • Croiteir

    What a surprise – the big two pull the ladder up a bit and claim their concern to be the public purse – here is a better idea. Cut the wages and maintain the representation

  • John Gorman

    Why stop at 5/constituency, lets go for 4 or even 3. The Scottish parliament has 130 or so seats looking after more than 5 million people. If we had a similar MLA/ population ratio we would need less than 50 MLA’s!!!!

  • Nicholas Whyte

    Bryan – I imagine that the Petition of Concern threshold would also have to drop proportionately, from 30 to 25.

    Bryan/Croteir – I’m sure that SF are as capable of adding up the numbers as I am, and if they have done so they will have come to a similar conclusion. And when I ran the numbers similarly for the last Assembly, I found SF came out even better relatively – losing perhaps one or two seats, with the other three big parties losing four, five or six each. I suspect that the geographical distribution of SF’s vote in general, a lot of strongholds and some deserts, means that they get better relative returns from smaller numbers of members per constituency.

    John – I examined the historical reasons why we have 108 here. Basically it’s a result of 1) giving the Ulster Unionists a Home Rule parliament that they did not particularly want in mid-1920; 2) an afterthought of a second chamber in December 1920; 3) wishful thinking about moderates getting in with larger numbers in 1973; 4) mathematical convenience in 1983; 5) mathematical convenience in 1995; 6) the legacy of 1996’s political expediency as it played out in 1998. But I don’t actually detect any public pressure to cut numbers below 90 (actually I don’t detect any public pressure at all one way or the other).

    Michael – we shall see. All I’m doing here is rerunning 2011 numbers on a five-seat basis. As you note, things have changed since, and will change again before the next election in 2016.

  • Tochais Siorai

    Michael, Britain will stay exactly the same size in the event of a YES vote……..unless of course you know something you’re not telling.

  • chrisjones2


    I have made a number of posts over the last week. Many of them have suddenly vanished. Did I do wrong?

  • Yes please.

  • barnshee

    Cut and cut again its enough to make me a SF supporter

  • Big Yellow Crane

    9 x 7 would give you 63 John. That’s almost pro-rata with the Dail and the Welsh assembly only has 60. So you could just pair constituencies up and go to a seven seat list.

  • Big Yellow Crane

    Just did it for a bit of an experiment with the electorate numbers from the last election (Wikipedia list). Paired neighbouring constituencies in the same county as far as possible, then divided the new constituency electorate by the total for NI and multiplied by 60. Rounding the results gives 3×6 + 6×7 = 60. Neat enough.

  • Croiteir

    I seem to be the only person who believes that there is not enough representation. We need to decentralise, we need to bring more power down from Stormont to councils and from councils to local areas. The powers that be wish the reverse, less representation and more power – to them. If you want to bring down representation at the centre build it at local level. Small community groups do this. Democratise them, allow us to elect local people to look after local affairs, more subsidiarity, bet the local politicos will not support that but still go for clap trap about saving money.

  • Aráto

    So a structure with Parish Councils > City/County Councils > Stormont > Westminster > Brussels > USA > UN > USA
    FFS we think it is bad now! In all seriousness though, I kinda do agree that we need more decentralisation, and more local representation at a micro level. Parish/Ward Councils would be a good start.

  • Nicholas Whyte

    Much better to use the new local government districts as a basis, as those boundaries are presumably fairly permanent. We discussed that option on Slugger back in 2012.

  • What a ridiculous proposal backed by the Sinners again. Come on, i think there are more worrying things to be dealt with than the size of the assembly !!!