ON Tuesday the Northern Ireland Office launched a public consultation seeking views on changes to Northern Ireland’s constitution.
Specifically they are thinking of changing the number of MLAs, the amount of time they serve between elections, their habit of collecting elected offices, and the idea that not all of their parties should be in government at once.
It might have been nice to have the opportunity to reverse the vandalism of St Andrews with regard to the election of the joint heads of government, but I suppose you have to be grateful for small mercies.
All of these things sound, on the face of it, interminably dull. Unfortunately, however, they are vitally important to our chances of developing a normal society with a healthy political system. Some of the proposals aren’t good, but in fairness those aren’t the NIO’s idea.
Reducing the number of MLAs sounds like it must be a good idea.
Why do they have massive expenses? Why are they paid so much? Just think of the amount of money we could save!
Reducing the number of MLAs by 28 (which seems to be the higher end of what is proposed by those who have expressed a view) would save very roughly £3 million a year in salary and expenses. That is around six per cent of the Assembly’s budget, and the Assembly’s budget is in turn around 0.3 per cent of Northern Ireland’s government expenditure.
To be clear about it, three million pounds a year wouldn’t keep the Department of Finance in paperclips.
Slashing the Assembly by half would barely register in the grand scheme of our public expenditure, and there are much bigger fish to fry if we are looking for government waste.
But is it a good idea nonetheless? To me there was a salutary lesson in the 2011 Assembly election, where boundary changes in North Antrim put a massive squeeze on the second nationalist seat. It was the SDLP MLA with two degrees and a lifetime teaching maths who lost out.
Declan O’Loan was an MLA who knew what he was talking about in economic and other debates. He really added something to the Assembly. He could challenge officials at committee meetings. He could tackle ministers at question time through a strong grasp of the detail.
He may have made some ill-advised comments proposing a renewal of the ‘pan-nationalist front’, but he was a massive loss to politics in Northern Ireland when he lost his seat.
This could be replicated throughout Northern Ireland if the number of MLAs per constituency was to be reduced.
The Assembly is maturing into a body that looks like it might come to have the same electoral problem as Dail Eireann, which elects TDs using the same system.
In 2009 former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald wrote: “During the past half century two-thirds of defeated Fianna Fáil TDs lost their seats to members of their own party rather than to the Opposition... Within the present [electoral] system many TDs have been forced to neglect their key legislative role because of the need to spend most of their time protecting their seats not just from TDs and candidates of other parties, but most of all from competitors within their own party.”
It is worth pointing out that Fianna Fáil had spent much of that half century gerrymandering the system, ensuring that constituencies elected as few TDs as possible. Small constituencies benefited FF as they benefit all dominant parties, they serve to drown out smaller parties by mathematics rather than true electoral success. In three or four seat constituencies the party managers for big parties find it easier to control the flow of transfers outside their tent, small parties find the hurdles to election disproportionately higher.
The Assembly shares the Dail’s problem of having members at the parish pump and neglecting their broader responsibilities as legislators, often because those who are seen as best at the former are incapable of the latter.
FitzGerald’s proposed solution was to adopt the system used in Scotland, Wales and other European legislatures. Single seat constituencies topped up with regional party lists that ensured that the Parliament as a whole was broadly representative of the election results taken in the round. Northern Ireland may not yet need to look at such a drastic upheaval, but no one should be in any doubt that the DUP’s favoured approach of reducing the number of MLAs per constituency is straight from Fianna Fáil tactics.
Reducing the size of the Assembly is at best gesture politics. It may be popular, but it saves hardly any money, and restricts the already small number of places open to politicians with the capacity to actually do the job.
But if we are going to do it, electing fewer MLAs per constituency will kill off both smaller parties and the Declan O’Loans of this world. Not through true electoral defeat, but through electoral vandalism.
Michael Shilliday is a former Ulster Unionist researcher who is currently based in London. Follow him on Twitter @mjShilliday