What would the Assembly look like if weighted majority voting had been introduced?

What would the Assembly look like if weighted majority voting had been introduced?

With the present RHI scandal throwing up another problem with the system there have been some calls for a ‘public conversation’ on future reform.

In the (original) Assembly & Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Bill John McCallister  brought forward cross-community support and the petition of concern would have been removed. He had proposed a minimum percentage of 60% as a weighted majority threshold.

First lets see how the number of seats per party breaks down in percentage terms. I have included all 108 though an appointed Speaker would reduce the percentage for his / her respective party.

DUP – 38 (35.18%)
SF – 28 (25.92%)
UUP – 16 (14.8%)
SDLP – 12 (11.1%)
All – 8 (7.4%)
Green – 2 (1.85%)
PBP – 2 (1.85%)
TUV – 1 (0.92%)
Ind U – 1 (0.92%)

If you (crudely) group these parties into Unionist, Nationalist, Alliance and Others you get the following :

51.82% (DUP / UUP / TUV / Ind U)
37.02% (SF / SDLP)
7.4% (Alliance)
3.7% (Greens / PBP)

In theory the Unionist bloc and Alliance are close to meeting the 60% weighted majority combining at a total of 59.22%.

In reality though no weighted majority system is going to work without a mix of both unionist and nationalist parties.

Some possible permutations based on the present Assembly makeup include :

SF & DUP = 61.1%
SF / UUP / SDLP / All / Greens = 61.07%
SF / UUP / SDLP / All / PBP = 61.07%
DUP / UUP / TUV / Ind U / All / Greens = 61.08%
DUP / UUP / SDLP = 61.08%

What might a 60% threshold unlock? It would open up the possibility of marriage equality being introduced at long last. If weighted majority voting was introduced for government formation you could have government without the DUP (or Sinn Féin if the SDLP do a deal with both unionist parties). The Assembly would be more likely to agree that the title of the First Minister and deputy First Minister be changed to Joint First Ministers. Negotiations for government formation could become a lot more interesting if parties no longer had an automatic entitlement to ministries.

If nationalists / republicans were ever to consider weighted majorities (and drop cross-community designation) 60% could possibly be too low. A 65% threshold would limit the number of possible combinations to meet threshold. Sinn Féin and the DUP would not even meet the 65%. The 65% threshold would however be impossible to meet without the DUP who make up slightly over 35% of the Assembly. Another DUP veto of sorts.

Possible alliances to meet the 65% threshold include :

DUP / UUP / SDLP / Alliance = 68.48%
DUP / SF / SDLP = 72.2%
DUP / SF / UUP = 75.9%
DUP / SF / Alliance = 68.5%

The present situation whereby the DUP are locked into government as of right is not good for delivering progressive change and highlights the problems with the current political system. In an administration with a permanent DUP veto it is difficult to motivate nationalist voters to come out because they cannot alter the composition of government and change comes dripping slow in the present status quo.

If the DUP were in government as a result of negotiation, where their participation in government relied upon delivery of commitments undertaken within that process, then outcomes would be markedly different.

Feeling that your vote can effect change and make a difference is crucial in any political model. In most political models there is a clear choice between different political projects. The consociational model in the north was a necessary evil in 1998 but its failure to evolve and adapt has demotivated voters. It doesn’t swing back and forth in terms of different government formations, the pendulum of political change, common elsewhere is absent here.

I’m not an advocate of the McCallister model but it has some merit and is worthwhile referring to in future debate. If there was to be a weighted majority system (for a 108 member Assembly) we should be willing to consider a 60% threshold on the basis that appropriate and robust cross-community safeguards are included. That may involve risk on the part of other parties but the DUP veto is not tenable for nationalist, republican and other parties in the longer term. A system of government that inhibits progressive change is fundamentally flawed.

Progressive parties thrive on change to build momentum for further change. The Assembly veto system guarantees frustration, inertia and deadlock which suits the DUP.

There are other factors which will impact on any consideration of new arrangements. The reduction of MLAs at the next election, is one such case in point. Reflection will be required as to how that may in fact consolidate the position of larger parties or otherwise.

The Petition of Concern (PoC) is another area that could usefully be subject to review. If the PoC were to require the signatures not only of 30 MLAs but at least 2 political parties then it would eliminate the possibility of 1 party vetoes. The DUP will not concede such privilege lightly. Sinn Féin cannot and will not (in the event of a 90 seat Assembly) be able to trigger a PoC on their own standing.

D’Hondt gives political parties an automatic right to ministerial office. Historically this is important to Sinn Féin as there was a distinct possibility that the other parties would join forces to exclude them. The Programme for Government does not have to be agreed before the government meets which removes the pressure of a focussed negotiation that is taken as a given elsewhere. It can however lead to gridlock if the political parties are deeply divided.

If D’Hondt ministerial appointments on the basis of party performance were removed what should appear in its place? A formula to ensure that designation in the Assembly is reflected in the Executive? A weighted majority in the Assembly chamber to approve the Executive? Or would the bottom line for nationalist / republican parties entering into negotiations be representation proportional to political designation?

If Arlene Foster remains as First Minister it will be seen by many as yet another example of why the political system in the north requires urgent overhaul. At a time when people are disengaging from politics, this is one change that must happen if the institutions are to retain any credibility. If she does survive it will ultimately be the system of mandatory coalition and the structures put in place by the Good Friday Agreement that save her. Now wouldn’t that be ironic ?

  • Roger

    A top priority and potential republican triumph: relabeling the First and deputy First Ministers as Joint First Ministers. How these republicans love their Crown positions. Stormont is safe.

  • OnTheHill

    It must be pointed out that the current cross community voting system at the Assembly contains an element of weighted majority. In most cases (including when invoked by a Petition of Concern) when cross community voting is required, 60% of those voting must vote ‘aye’; and of those 60%, 40% must be declared Nationalists and 40% must be declared Unionists.

  • Croiteir

    I find this a very interesting study. It gives me an insight into how people will acknowledge a problem but will not admit that the problem is them but something else. In this case it is nationalist Ireland in general and SF in particular.

    The author knows that the nationalist voter is not turning out. He attributes that to the system, the system that nationalist Ireland hailed as the great breakthrough a mere 20 years ago. It wasn’t and isn’t. But not for the reasons he gives now. It wasn’t as it surrendered the De Jure position of Ireland being a single political unit, a very fundamental position which has repercussions which will impact us in terms of Brexit, Lough Foyle and surrounding seas, mineral rights and so on into unknown unknowns. The biggest example of nationalist turkeys voting for Christmas since June 23 1916.

    However that is clearly not the reason for declining nationalist voting. That is something else entirely, it is the recognition that nationalist Irelands politicians are not representing their people adequately. They concentrate on issues that are frankly unimportant, their function is to challenge the constitutional status quo, or else they are not nationalists, and at the same time forward the day to day condition of their people.

    The manifestation of this can be seen in the very basics. And indeed in the piece written by Mr McKay. One of the important issues addressed by the GFA was the cultural alienation and suppression of nationalist Ireland in the six counties. One of the measures agreed to address this was an Irish Language Bill. And how has this fundamental issue been pursued? Well compare it to an issue that Daithi clearly believes is more important as he raises it within his piece. Same Sex Marriage. How many times has a bill been presented for that? Compare and contrast.

    Continuing on this issue of cultural recognition, within a very short time Peter Mandelson laid down a marker which was clear for both unionists and nationalists to see, He maintained the supremacy of British cultural expression, there was to be no equivalence between that and nationalist cultural expression. He passed the “The Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 Order”. Nationalist Ireland should have stopped everything in its tracks there and then. It didn’t, pushover nationalism had began and unionists learned the lesson that these guys would do anything to keep the pretence going.

    Ever since nationalist Ireland has refused to properly deal with unionists and their weird mix of superior to nationalist and inferior to British, or should I say English, mindset and their resulting ignorance and dismissiveness on one hand and their obsequiousness on the other.

    The only political weapon the Irish politicians have is instability – they refuse to employ it. They have no other option but to suck their soup, and they do it. The alternative is to make Stormont a fight a day. And that should be done. Haughey’s axiomatic comment about a failed entity is laid bare, however nationalists try to cover it up by excusing the ignorance of unionism instead of bringing the edifice down.

    Who would vote for that?

  • Ciaran74

    Maybe, in the political party bubbles. Personally I believe this to be stored under File 13, with the other rainy day bits. The nationalist voting base is beyond that and in little mood for gimmicks. If you think that’s what the Republican leadership want, what do you think nationalist voters want?

  • Neonlights

    It has often been said that since the days of Harold Wilson, the prevailing favoured solution of the British Government to the “Ulster” problem was to create the conditions in which the protestant population would be happy to join a United Ireland. What better way to convince them could there be than to have them be governed by the current set of miserable failures who comprise the Local Assembly. Buying boats for Strangford-Portaferry which don’t work; twice in a row. Burning money as if it were wood pellets. Doing nothing to address the Health Service’s problems. Dithering over the Education System. Introducing what could be (cruelly) called a novel form of protection money payments to the various paramiltaries with their community schemes. Red Sky at Night, mention no names delight. The list goes on… So I contend that the Stormont Local Assembly is the best device to unite Ireland.

  • ted hagan

    You could be in for a shock then. Direct rule from Westminster is the more likely option.

  • ted hagan

    When sectarian politics decays, where religion becomes irrelevant in the make-up of political parties, when real issues start to matter, when we all grow up a bit and stop wailing about past injustices, that’s when there will be a chance of a united Ireland.

  • Karl

    Joint authority will be the constitutional half way house if Brexit / scandal fatigue does prove the catalyst for change.
    The continuation of internal medocrity is the most likely route though. The brightest and the best will leave. The middle ground will continue to disengage and the extremes will continue their sham fight about themmuns, flags and unification ad nauseum with an interest in maintaining the fight a day but not with any impetus to change. Fudge suits the political elites in Dublin, Belfast and London.
    However, if there does come a tipping point, Dublin will be included in Londons plans and there will be a 30 year road map to disengagement, not necessarily unification, but there will no longer be a blank cheque and a consequence free environment. NI will be much poorer unless there is significant change. Nationalist reinterest in the constitutional status will be needed though. It remains to be seen whether Brexit relights the fire.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    So, when the north catches up with developments in the south……..

  • ted hagan

    Yes indeed. That would be something to strive for, only better.

  • cj

    here here!

  • Roger

    Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan. Ulster version. Brits disengage and the Irish reciprocate with a formal pull out from Donegal.

    Sounds likely.