The Casually Vacant Council Seats

When the DUP’s Peter Johnston became a member of Mid and East Antrim Council, representing the Carrick Castle DEA, on 19th October 2018 he did so by winning a by-election[1], the first time since May 2010 that a by-election for a council seat had been fought. Figures provided by the Electoral Office show that since the last local government election in May 2014 there have been 86 co-options to councils (including five to the old legacy councils), meaning that 19% of councillors have not had to face the electorate to secure their seats. There are a variety of reasons why co-options happen, and there are obvious benefits in terms of reducing costs and reducing the number of by-elections, but at what point do these benefits outweigh the democratic deficit of having one in five of our councillors not having been elected by anyone?

Since the passing of The Electoral Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1962 (Amendment) Order 2010 the vast majority of casual vacancies in councils have been filled by co-opting on a new member. Prior to the 2010 legislation co-options could happen but required the unanimous consent of all members of the council which was not always possible. In the decade prior to 2010 there were nineteen council by-elections, and between 1990 and 2000 there were twenty nine.

So should there be a point at which a council could be deemed to have too many unelected members? Each of the eleven councils saw co-options over the past five years, with Belfast leading the way with 18 (30%) to Mid & East Antrim with only 2 (5%).

All of the main political parties have unelected councillors, led by Sinn Féin who have co-opted 26 (31% of all co-options), but interestingly two of the smaller parties, the Greens and People Before Profit, have replaced all three of their councillors who were originally elected in 2014.

The Greens even managed to co-opt some of their co-optees, with Rachel Woods replacing the elected Paul Roberts in Bangor West (Ards and North Down) in October 2016, only for her to be co-opted out for James Hunter in March 2018, so that she could be co-opted on for the elected John Barry in Holywood and Clandeyboyne. To finish off the Greens merry go round of co-options, James Hunter was co-opted off the council nine months after being co-opted on, in December 2018, so that James McKee could be co-opted on. Similarly the SDLP in Killultagh (Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council) have seen four different councillors represent the party since 2014, when Pat Catney was elected to the council but then co-opted out when he won an Assembly seat in March 2017. He was replaced on the council by Connor Quinn, who was then replaced by Christine Robb in April 2018, who in turn was eventually replaced by former Labour senator Máiría Cahill in July 2018. In many of these cases the original decision made by the voters in 2014 has been overturned not by the voters but by party apparatchiks to suit their own agendas.

In terms of the differential in gender make ups of councils we have seen a mixed bag with sixty men being and twenty six women being co-opted off councils, and fifty one men and thirty five women being co-opted on to councils, a net increase of fifteen female councillors.

Thirty-one co-options have happened as a result of councillors becoming members of the Assembly (29), Westminster (1 – Gavin Robinson) and Seanad Éireann (1 – Niall Ó’Donghaile) and five have happened as the sitting councillor had died. We have also seen 31 co-options since in 2018, suggesting that parties are preparing themselves for the forthcoming election by replacing sitting councillors with candidates for 2019, giving them a chance to boost their profiles in advance of the election.

Co-options allow political parties to replace exiting councillors with new members without the risk and expense of a by-election. Council by-elections traditionally have very low turnout and cost a significant amount of money to run, with the Carrick Castle by-election costing the Electoral Office £25,850, which doesn’t include the cost incurred by the council for facilitating the election, for a turnout of only 22% of eligible voters. Co-options allow the original party choice of the electorate to be respected as a multi-seat PR election under STV will produce a more proportionate result than a single seat STV by-election, which will ultimately favour the larger parties.

The 2010 legislation gives parties the power to co-opt councillors based on their membership when they were first elected which sometimes throws up a few interesting situations. In 2014, in the closest result of the election, the then DUP candidate in Lisburn North Jenny Palmer eked out her running mate Yvonne Craig by 3.3 votes. Standing as a UUP candidate in the 2016 Assembly election, Cllr. Palmer then helped her new party win a seat from the DUP, defeating sitting MLA Jonathan Craig, husband of Yvonne Craig who had Palmer defeated in 2014. Following her election to the Assembly, Jenny Palmer had to resign from the council but, as she was elected in 2014 as a DUP councillor, who do you think that party selected to replace her? You guessed it – none other than Jonathan Craig, who after all wasn’t sitting in the Assembly anyway.

Going forward, council by-elections, such as Carrick Castle, will be the exception rather than the norm, but the proliferation of co-options and the high proportion of unelected councillors should make us all think about how many of the councillors we elect in May will be there by the end of their term in 2024. We should also understand that in continued absence of institutions at Stormont, and the rumblings of a push for more powers to be devolved to local councils, a significant proportion of councillors have been put there by their parties, and not by the electorate.

[1] The reason why a by-election was held in the Carrick Castle DEA was that an independent unionist councillor, Jim Brown, had died and none of his listed successors met the eligibility requirements.