Has the Co-option system passed its sell by date?

I was on Evening Extra yesterday (40 mins in) with the former Communications Director, Ruairi O’Kane debating the virtues of co-option.  Before this term is out, we will have two more new faces in Stormont as Peter Robinson and Pat Ramsey depart the Assembly this month.

Here I have to declare that, I have never been a fan of co-options. I feel they take power from voters and hand them to party managers and simply breeds this notion that seats belong to parties, rather than the people.

In a multi-member constituency, I know there are arguments for maintaining what people voted for on election day, but like a true political nerd, I like voting, I like the ritual of choosing my public representatives and for me co-option takes an element of that process out of my hands for a period.

What boggles my mind most is that in Northern Ireland we have a major democratic deficit and are content to fuel that with this system, which is now being abused by some parties.

Anyway, have a listen to the debate and I would be keen to hear your thoughts.

Further information on this can be found in a report by The Detail on this issue.




  • Cavehill

    I don’t think that there is a better way to replace MLAs than co-option. By-elections would decimate smaller parties and could encourage MLAs suffering from poor health to continue running themselves into the ground because otherwise their party will lose the seat (for example Michael Copeland in East Belfast). This isnt to mention the cost to stage a by-election.

    I strongly believe that this mandate’s large number of co-options will not be matched again given the phasing out of double jobbing in all but one party, and even that party has cut substantially at the number of double jobbers it has (only two now).

  • AndyB

    Has it been abused? Well, yes. There’s no reason why Peter Robinson needs to stand down before May – if his health means he needs to go sooner rather than later, he shouldn’t have waited until his party conference.

    The problem is best expressed as this: unless an MLA leaving due to ill-health belongs to a party whose first preference votes topped the poll in 2011, the most popular party of the day will win that seat in any by-election.

    In practice, that means that in all but three constituencies, a by-election would lead to DUP or Sinn Fein winning the seat – which, if the MLA standing down belonged to any other party, would mean losing a seat to them.

    The only fair way to do it in that situation would be to declare all six seats in the constituency vacant for the six weeks before the by-election. Mind you, that might be enough to encourage holding onto your seat except in actual cases of chronic ill-health!

  • chrisjones2

    Why do we need the smaller parties. The reality is that they dont matter and the overall mandate is surely more important than preserving smaller parties that cannot sustain a critical mass.

    Is there not an argument that their demise might force the big 4 to broaden their bases to compete?

  • Jack

    What evidence do you have to back this up?

    In Dail constituencies, they run by-elections, and the biggest party don’t always win! There have been 12 Dail by-elections since the 2002 Irish general election, and only one was won by the party which topped the poll in that constituency in the previous general election.

  • Cavehill

    Their voice matters to the voters who elect them. Voters of every party want to hear that party’s voice heard and co-option is the best means of maintaining a plurality of voices.

  • chrisjones2

    You can ague that of any minority group. Why just these ones?

  • chrisjones2

    …or a reserve list system so when you vote you know what you are getting a
    nd what you may get if they go

  • Catcher in the Rye

    I don’t think that there is a better way to replace MLAs than co-option.

    There are a number of options that would be more democratic (other than calling a by-election which I agree would be impractical).

    You could have an arrangement at the count; when all the seats are filled, continue counting to fill “ghost seats” of alternative candidates who would fill any vacancies, in order.

    Or you could go back to the system we used to have, where each candidate would nominate one or two individuals to take their place in the event of them stepping down.

    I would also build in additional rules, such as :

    – disqualifying anyone who is already an MLA, or who stood for election as an MLA in a constituency other than the one where the co-option is taking place

    – if more than two out of the six seats in any constituency are filled by co-option then a by-election must be held for the entire constituency.

    – seats filled by co-option cannot be filled for a period of six months. A gentleman’s agreement would be put in place so that the other MLAs in the constituency would come to the assistance of anyone who voted for the MLA who stood down.

    There are any number of ways the system could be improved to make it more democratic. However, it is unlikely that any of the parties will take any interest in reform – the British government would have to do it (much like they did with double jobbing). It’s just far too convenient for parties to be able to parachute favoured individuals into seats when it suits their party strategy. One can only hope that this kind of arrogance will ultimately lead to their downfall.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Nonsense. every single co-optee in the assembly in its entire history has been from an Executive party.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    it’s not a case of having evidence; it’s a matter of the desire of the electorate being properly reflected, which it won’t be when single-member STV elections are run in multi-member constituencies.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    There is clear abuse going on.

    I don’t mean to be harsh but I also think parties are taking liberties by suggesting that MLAs are resigning due to illness. This theory was circulated initially when Jimmy Spratt stood down, but then he contradicted this by doing an interview where he said he would not have resigned had his proposed replacement not met with his approval.

    I do not mean to be rude about Pat Ramsey, who is by all accounts a gentleman and a keen public servant, and in no way do I wish to attack him, but in an interview he said that he had trouble with stress of the 7 day schedule of the assembly. I have no doubt that this is true, Why doesn’t he simply dial back on his schedule a bit ? Stress is, of course, a very serious thing but most of us have to deal with it by taking time off and getting help to manage our workloads better.

    Of course the resignations of Peter Robinson and Gerry Adams are in a different league entirely. But overall this is all about taking the p***. What’s happening is that MLAs who wish to resign are stepping down six months early so that their replacements have a chance to be exposed to the public first. This is meddling with democracy; it’s parties using their position to gain an unfair advantage in an election. It should not be allowed.

  • Jack

    If you’re claiming that the constituency’s biggest party will always win, then I think it’s fair to ask for evidence pertaining to that point. Especially as there is evidence contradicting the point (which is presented in my last comment).

    Yes, by-elections won’t be perfectly representative, but they will be significantly more representative than the current system, where a co-opted MLA does not even have to receive one vote.

  • chrisjones2

    Sorry but I have heard that both these MLAs genuinely are ill and its very well known. Its not choice

  • Catcher in the Rye

    The constituency’s biggest party on polling day will always win as they will be the ones with the most votes, surely ?

    The basis of the existing system is that the co-opted MLA from the same party and with the blessing of the same party nominating officer who proposed the original MLA is most likely to represent constituents. In theory, that is true. In practice, it is being abused. The abuse is easy enough to stop without getting rid of the system altogether.

  • Catcher in the Rye


    You are wrong in the case of Jimmy Spratt.

    The party originally said that his resignation was on health grounds. (link).

    But then he said in a News Letter interview (see here) :

    “I don’t accept that either [Christopher Stalford or Ruth Patterson] would have been a better replacement than Emma Pengelly, and certainly if any of the two of them had been going to be appointed I would still be the MLA for South Belfast and would have continued up until the end of the mandate”

    This means that the original claim that he was stepping down on health grounds was false.

  • Kevin Breslin

    If there were bielections in these two seats it’s likely that they would be held by the same parties.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Robinson isn’t retiring from ill health, and by his own admission the condition is manageable and was self inflicted.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Agree with reserves, the only issue with them is what happens if you have a defection does that reserve list become invalid?

  • Jack

    Yes the biggest party on polling day will win. But as I’ve said, this party won’t necessarily be the same as the biggest party at a normal election. Dail by-elections have shown that parties that usually don’t top the poll in that constituency are not at a disadvantage when it comes to a by-election.

    Co-option only strengthens the partisan nature of our politics. When we vote in an Assembly election, we vote for candidates, not parties. Often the co-optee has different views to their predecessor (especially on ‘issues of conscience’ that the party don’t have a policy on). Appointing an MLA who has radically different views to their predecessor is an abuse of the system that cannot be solved by tweaking the co-option process. Reform won’t be as effective as complete replacement of co-option with by-elections.

    A system in which constituents choose their MLAs is, in my opinion, more representative and democratic than one in which parties’ leaderships appoint MLAs, with no input form the constituents.

  • John Collins

    That works different ways, The Liberal Party in GB often had twenty plus % of the votes on a few occasions and yet had less than 5% of the seats. Meanwhile the Cons or Labour each ruled on their own without getting 40% of the votes cast. On the other hand the PDs in the South with 5% of the voter had two of the most influential ministries. Both outcomes made a mockery out of the principle of the democratic will of the people been reflected in the outcome of elections.

  • John Collins

    Not always as by elections are often used by the electorate to give governments a wake call. This is borne out in by elections in both the Republic and mainland BB

  • Cavehill

    Because they were elected.

  • murdockp

    I love the words ‘a true public servant’ a hard one to believe when you look at the cash and pensions they walk away with which suggests that they serve only themselves.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Disagree, bi-elections in the South are disproportionate representation. If there is to be an honest bi-election for the electorate all six MLAs for a constituency should stand again. That would be financially insane, but it is only just way of determining the proportionate will of the electorate. If an incumbent loses their seat, so be it. U

    Why is it fairer that a bi-election can replace someone who quits on their own terms in order to stop someone who the public might not want in, and on the same basis we cannot recall an MLA who the quota who elected them may now want out?

    This makes me lean towards a replacement list.

    I also disagree with the inference that somehow the Southern electoral system is more advantageous to one group on the side of conscience vote than another. We’ve had one MLA change their opinion on a conscience matter while elected on a different conscience platform. You have a bi-election and your “conscience platform” may not get you the 50% + 1, and may not save your party its seat. There is really two options you either choose to bow out a principled non-conformist loser or play down the conscience matter entirely just to get in. That’s politics for you.

    But the disproportionate nature is my major concern.

    Naomi Long gets elected MLA and then dies or is forced to quit, Alliance could top the poll, get 49.9% of the vote after transfers and still lose the seat.

    The DUP could end up with four seats from just over three quotas and Alliance one seat from just over three quotas. Please don’t argue that gives each constituent a fair share

    In a three seater in the Republic the quota that elected the TD does have a say in who is replacing it, albeit not an absolute one. In a six seater in Stormont, the third, fourth or fifth party election virtually has no hope of retaining the seat until the next election.

    It’s not the party’s seat and we have elections for that, but it’s the six seats aren’t there either to represent a majority, they are supposed to reflect six sevenths of a constituency.

    I say this because in all likelihood the SDLP could have another five or six seats from Foyle and South Belfast if it came to bielections, these bielections skew the results to biggest party/majority and they skew the results away from the quota that elected the MLA being replaced. They’d lead to sectarian headcounts where nationalists win unionist seats and vice-versa just because someone died or got ill.

    I’d take partisan politics over them and us politics every day of the week. Imagine 40 bielections. Imagine the nonsence that would happen if Sinn Féin won the empty seat Tom Elliot left by going to Westminster. The mopey of the fairly legitimate complaint that nationalists can vote twice in that contest.

    I don’t think you are using grounded reasoning here.

  • mushroom man

    Sinn Fein is the hardest working most selfless political party on this island. Co-option afford it a chance to promote some outstanding candidates into public service who will work day and night for their constituents

  • AndyB

    @disqus_PAxgSjblB1:disqus @disqus_WkLhYeoDK9:disqus @kevinbreslin:disqus @chrisjones2:disqus

    The evidence is in the shift of seats from one election to the next.

    If an SDLP member resigned from West Belfast, there is no chance that an SDLP member would be elected to replace them – similarly for any smaller party in Lagan Valley.

    One party holds three or more of the seats in 15 of the constituencies in Northern Ireland. It’s unthinkable that in an Assembly by-election, there would be a swing away from the majority party sufficient to elect a smaller party.

    The only exceptions are Upper Bann (where a unionist would certainly be elected), South Down (certainly a nationalist) and South Belfast, which is the only one where you couldn’t be entirely sure – Assembly elections, being STV, tend to eliminate the tactical voting element in FPTP. A by-election using AV will eliminate smaller parties quickly.

    Ultimately, history tells us that barring the UUP/SDLP migration to DUP/SF from 1998 to 2003, Northern Ireland voters don’t shift to any great degree from one election to the next, primarily because most vote on tribal grounds and who they think will best defend or destroy the union, rather than the bread and butter economic policies that swing voters in most countries (like Ireland!)

    Throw in electoral pacts and tactical voting, and it’s extremely probable that whoever had the most first preference votes at the previous Assembly election will repeat that performance at any by-election.

  • AndyB

    Isn’t that the purpose of the Assembly elections?

  • Kevin Breslin

    Bi-elections would probably be STV too, I’m not too sure if there’s much difference from AV. My understanding is that under AV all but the top two are eliminated and the transfers of the rest redistributed. In STV a third place candidate on first counts can still win a majority. Small parties would be more important in this bi election because Arrow’s Law doesn’t apply to the first count so they can maximise their vote.

    If we had smaller constituencies this might help smaller parties but effectively a bi-election would resemble Westminster albeit a bit more polarised.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Also the costs of replacing every MLA who left with a bi-election would be nearly £50 million, want to put that to the electorate?

  • AndyB

    Actually, AV just eliminates candidates from the bottom up until one candidate has over 50% of the vote. It’s done the same way as STV for one seat – the quota is votes cast/(seats + 1) + 1, or in other words, 50% of the votes plus one.

  • the rich get richer

    Proper Democracy has always been on shaky ground in the wee statelet !

    Sometimes the more things change the more they remain the same.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Actually the main difference then is that elimination process in STV is quicker then, as it can eliminate multiple candidates in the one count (by determining mathematically that neither can usurp the top two on a margin of error). They’d both end up with the same result in all likelihood. It would be interesting to see if a Monte Carlo simulation of voting could show how much of a difference these methods (or algorithms) have.

  • AndyB

    Not quite. STV is also officially elimination from the bottom up until the next candidate reaches the quota.

    It’s just that if the highest-placed candidate is 2000 short of the quota, there is no point eliminating a candidate with only 300 votes on their own, because it won’t affect the election.

    On the other hand, if the bottom four candidates have 300, 500, 700 and 750 votes (2250 altogether), then you can eliminate them all at once, but no more than that as it’s the minimum elimination that could result in someone being elected. There is a technical risk that the 300 votes could affect the elimination order.

    The same would happen in AV.

    As a little trivia, I was looking at Belfast East in 2011. Sammy Douglas and Michael Copeland were elected without a final elimination because Brian Ervine and Dawn Purvis’s total of votes was less than Michael’s.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Kevin, indeed. He’s retiring because the co-option system makes it easy and simple for him to appoint a replacement without the rigmarole of having to build them up prior to an election.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    It all depends on the circumstances.

    But it is simple enough reasoning that a by-election somewhere like West Belfast where SF have five out of the six seats and control the Westminster seat .. you’d be mad to bet that they would not win a single-seater STV poll. The system that we design has to be fair in the worst possible imaginable cases.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I disagree because Foster and Dodds taking over the DUP was built up when he lost his MP seat, Gavin Robinson had two parties working for him at the very least. Adam Newton, Colin Hussey, Tommy Sandford, Aileen Graham could all be the next DUP East Belfast MLA and they have plenty of failed election candidates to replace them.

    Worst case scenario, you’d have 3 Alliance MLAs and Long back for six months deterring him from quitting. Having a co-op in doesn’t really guarantee they stay in given a short period of time. Just ask Pól Callaghan.

  • chrisjones2

    I understand that you are wrong …but time will tell

  • chrisjones2

    And when they are give up? What happens if the whole party collapses? Or its an independent?

  • chrisjones2

    “Sinn Fein is the hardest working most selfless political party on this island. ”

    I can only suggest you try open night here


  • Unlike some commenters, I don’t have a fundamental problem with co-option.

    I also think that focussing on those stepping down is wrong-headed. Anyone should be free to relinquish an elected position at any time, and for any reason.

    Whether, and how, they are replaced is the only area in which restrictions should be in place.

    That said, as Catcher points out below, there is a strong case for the return to the ‘reserve’ list system – as agreed by the elected candidate.

    That might prevent most of the abuses we have seen.

    And given those abuses, the case for change is overwhelming.

    Here are a few restrictions that, even without the return of the list, would help to focus the minds of party ‘managers’ tempted to manipulate the system – although I would prefer them to be adopted along with the return of the ‘reserve’ list.

    First – No co-options should be allowed within 6 months of the end of the Assembly’s full term. This is a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned and would help prevent the promotion into the public arena of future candidates.

    Second – No-one who has previously stepped down as an MLA should be eligible to be co-opted. Again, a no-brainer. If someone has given up a position as an elected public representative in the Assembly, for whatever reason, they should have to face the electorate again before resuming that responsibility.

    The last is a blatant crib from Catcher’s list – if more than two out of the six seats in any constituency are filled by co-option then a by-election must be held for the entire constituency. Again, a no-brainer, as far as I’m concerned.

    I don’t think it would be advisable to try to cover every eventuality in any proposed restrictions on co-option, but I believe those three changes would prevent most of the more damaging abuses of the system.

  • tmitch57

    In proportional representation franchise systems–of which STV is one form–the franchise benefits minority parties by giving them a more proportional share of the vote. But then the real bargaining takes place after the election in the coalition negotiations. In a plurality system (FPTP) the bargaining takes place before the election among various factions within each party. Under a FPTP system the voters are effectively limited to only a choice between two or three medium to large parties, but the candidates are accountable to the electorate. Under a PR franchise the voter has a much wider menu of parties to choose from, but he doesn’t know what the actual composition and policies of the government will be. And in a PR system the representatives are responsible to the party leadership rather than to the voters.

  • aquifer

    PRSTV tends to split the electorate on sectarian lines, so that the parties say of capital or labour cannot make headway. Seats are allocated primarily by vote transfers within sectarian blocs.
    Like the terror operations of Daesh, this reduces the ‘grey zone’ of co-existence and dialogue that underpin social stability. This would matter less if a successful consociational governmental model for Northern Ireland were not needed as an example for other regions riven by sectarian conflict. In Northern Ireland parties are free to engineer social conflict to maintain the narrative chosen to maximise their vote. DUP promote Orange marches, SF blame the British State for murder. Quel supris. And with co-option, larger parties are free to re-engineer their prospects at the next election, free from accountability between elections for their promises at the last one.
    When the issue apparently at stake here at every election is the border, why not have a Northern Ireland wide franchise? Seats allocated in proportion to the votes that voters cast?
    That way, if votes cast at by-elections put a party over the threshold for another seat, they clearly warrant it.

  • Gaygael

    I am growing fond of count back method.

    It would mean running the full result of elections and holding these in case
    It would mean that if a candidate resigns then that candidates votes are transferred and the replacement is worked that way.

    It still reflects the diversity of opinion in the constituency.

  • Sir Rantsalot

    Where on earth did the idea come from that anything other than the electorates votes decides things? Im sure theres a history behind all the options, but it seems strange to leave votes out if it. It should be straight forward to work out a 1st, 2nd, 3rd place on election day. Then go to that list if a sitting MLA has had enough during the term.

  • NMS

    A valid point. By-elections have thrown up odd results in Ireland. Also by-elections an opportunity to challenge and for smaller parties to get attention. One wonders how the Provos would like defending seats, say in West Belfast against the local Trotskyite? It would hard to run away from their sponsorship of “austerity”/”book balancing”, if even done by delegating the responsibility to London.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Wrong about what ? I quoted Jimmy Spratt’s own words.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    You’d argue with me if I said the sky was blue.

    The only reason why Robinson is resigning is so that they can parachute in someone and spend six months building them up. Why else would he do it ?

  • Slater

    It won’t happen as the whole system is based on a rigid acceptance of the numbers of MLAs per party at the most recent election and the whole thing would be destabilised if by-elections changed those numbers.

    At least it is better than the last version where the dead were allowed to vote via the party leader.
    The DUP will probably choose a complete outsider in East Belfast or a relative as their local councillor talent pool is not deep.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    I thought this was a good idea, and mentioned it above, although I’m wondering about how it would work in practice. Would it mean every party would run an extra candidate and risk splitting their own vote ?

  • Catcher in the Rye

    I’m glad you brought this up. When’s the last time you saw Pat Doherty ?

  • Catcher in the Rye

    PRSTV tends to split the electorate on sectarian lines

    Perhaps you did not notice this, but Westminster elections (FPTP) are also split along sectarian lines. In fact in many ways they’re worse – the system encourages pacts and tribal tactical voting.

  • mushroom man

    Pat does lots.of hard work in West Tyrone

  • Granni Trixie

    I read that too – your point is logical.

  • Gaygael

    Want to say more.
    Too late. Let it brew.

  • John Collins

    Excellent example

  • Roger

    The NI Assembly is a glorified county council. Or province council. It would be squander to pay for by-elections to such a marginal institution.

  • Kevin Breslin

    South Down would be relying on a Unionist friendly Shinner beating the SDLP to 50%+1 after all transfers assigned.

    Arguably a Fianna Fáil candidate or a strong independent (probably nationalist leaning) getting moderates and hardliners in the area might be hypothetically possible.

    If South Belfast gets merged into the West, South West would be Nationalist, Greater North Belfast will be safe unionist, it will be the South-East (probably more Alliance friendly) that would be the one in question, …

    The partition of Mid Ulster between West Belfast and East Londonderry/East Derry/Doire Thoir/Aest Lunnonderrie might make that a swing constituency too.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I’ve listened to David McCann and I have to say, his comments that just because mavericks get in in the Republic means they will get in in the North as well.

    Does he seriously think that somehow a maverick is going to get in where safe seats exist?

    Does he not think that Bi-elections would be to the detriment of the mavericks in pretty much every constituency outside North Down?

    The big issue with the Southern System is not that it makes the people sovereign, it’s that it makes some of the people who already voted in their representatives sovereign twice.

    In the South we could have one half of the vote controlling three of the seats in a five seater.

    In South Belfast we could have less than half the vote with generous transfers controlling four seats in a six seater.