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 ?

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