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.)

Husband, father of three, Irish, European, UK, Belgian citizen, liberal, political analyst, science fiction fan, psephologist, lapsed medievalist, aspiring polyglot.