Assembly Election Reflection.

Time is a strange thing. Sometimes we eagerly count down the days until a certain event occurs. We swear that it feels so very far away, but in what seems like a blink of an eye, the event in question has come and gone and we are left reminiscing in its wake. This surreal feeling of nostalgia and confusion at the rapid passage of time is how I feel now that the month of May, election season, has come and gone. As the summer recess ended, and Assembly business and discussion over the proposed Programme for Government gets underway, I find myself thinking about the election results which brought us to this moment.

We saw the best and worst of politics during this past election campaign. From bold pledges, fresh faces and strong debates to political sniping (especially on social media). From the highs and lows of campaigning and results, the electorate observed the candidates and voted accordingly, with surprises and shocks along the way. The political landscape in Northern Ireland may look to have simply replicated itself, but upon closer examination there is evidence of something different. Yes, the largest parties remain the same. Yes, there is still a problem with the declining Nationalist vote which Nationalist parties need to address. And yes, there is still the ongoing issue of electoral turnout. Still, I truly do feel that this election marked a change in Northern Irish politics: it has modernised, it has matured and it may just yet be on the step towards normalisation.

I had been eagerly awaiting the 5th May, as it marked my first time voting in the Assembly elections here in Northern Ireland. I could not wait until I exercised my right to vote, and cast my ballot for my chosen candidates in a day of democracy. The moment seemed to come upon me so very suddenly, and I remember driving with my parents to our local polling station knowing that unlike the past times when I had accompanied them, this time I would be taking part myself. It is hard as a young woman not to acknowledge how precious the right to vote is, and as I dropped my ballot into the generic black box, I felt a sense of satisfaction  knowing that irrespective of the outcome in my constituency and across the state, I had voted. I felt the same way last year during the General Election for Westminster, but this just felt a tad more important because it was an election for the Northern Ireland Assembly. This is an institution of devolution, a sign of normalisation and reconciliation post-Troubles and indeed a symbol of the end of Direct Rule.

Now, call me young and naive, but I feel that despite the problems which have bedevilled Stormont over the years, and for all the grumbles and complaints from the general public, it is our hub of democracy and transitional government. I truly believe that if the public became more engaged with the political system and availed of their elected representatives, and should said elected representatives be willing to listen and engage also, Stormont could achieve more than it ever has. I know a fair few who would submit that the Assembly is a mere talking-shop, and endless merry-go-round of crises and collapse, and we would simply be better off under Direct Rule once more. I could not disagree more. We are a proud people, and we are entitled to self-government. Dictation via barely-present scrutiny and accountability from Westminster should never be an aspiration. What better way to move towards reconciliation and ensure stability, peace and prosperity for all citizens than by a local power-sharing Assembly? Northern Ireland will not have a future as long as we stay too firmly rooted in our past, and one of the ways to work towards an inclusive and progressive future for all is through effective government and an engaged political system in Northern Ireland, not fragmented and sprawled across the Irish Sea.

Regular readers of my blog – and indeed, my Twitter – will be all too-aware of my interest in current affairs and politics. One of my friends quipped about what I would do without the Assembly election in my life during the weekend of the results. Whilst I do have rather the Assembly election-shaped hole in my heart, I am excited to see the outcome, and am intrigued to see how the new mandate progresses in light of new faces, an Opposition, and new parties present in Stormont. I have also been very fortunate in that during the election campaign and the subsequent aftermath, I have been able to give my opinion and thoughts not just here, but on local radio through my participation with the BBC Generation 2016 programme. I will write more on my BBC Generation 2016 activities and my thoughts on the Executive formation soon, but until then I thought it would be fitting to end this post with a touch of nostalgia by including some memories of the recent elections.

And I leave you with the a brilliant line from SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood regarding election results: “The people have spoken. We just need to figure out what they have said.”

Leah’s Highlights of the 2016 Assembly Election

  • Gerry Carroll (People Before Profit Alliance) polling an impressive 8,299 1st preference votes in Belfast West; a staggering 3,000 over the required quota and his nearest rival candidate.
  • My home constituency of South Antrim finally became competitive: Unionist candidates, generally the DUP, tend to be elected over quota and rather promptly from the first count. This year saw multiple counts – we went to seven – and no DUP candidate was elected on the first count. South Antrim also provided a nervous moment for Alliance supporters, as the Alliance party leader David Ford was forced to go the extra mile and wait until the sixth count to be re-elected. He had only polled 3,119 first preference votes. South Antrim could just be one to watch in 2021, when there will only be five and not six seats available per constituency.
  • Alex Attwood (SDLP) and Frank McCoubrey’s (DUP) deathmatch battle in Belfast West: a political nail-biter if there ever was one. Mr McCoubrey polled higher in first preferences (3,766 votes to Mr Attwood’s 2,647) and consistently led the incumbent Mr Attwood across eight stages of counting, increasing speculation the SDLP might just lose their sole Belfast West MLA. News broke after eleven o’clock in the evening that results night that Mr Attwood might just have edged out Mr McCoubrey with transfer votes. There was a call for a recount, but by half past eleven a weary and visibly relieved Mr Attwood was declared the victor. He won by just 89 votes. Interestingly enough, the SDLP candidate was helped over the finish line by 131 transfers… from Sinn Féin. (Gasp.) The lesson to be taken from Belfast West 2016? Every vote counts, hence the need to go out and cast your vote.
  • Eamonn McCann (People Before Profit Alliance) winning a Foyle seat after decades of political activism and contesting elections. He may have had to wait until the eighth and final stage of counting, but he made sure to make the most of his acceptance speech, bursting into a rendition of The Internationale, much to the bemusement of the other candidates.
  • The Foyle Fight: SDLP party leader Colum Eastwood v Sinn Féin heavyweight Martin McGuinness proved to be a juggernaut of a fight, with merely 37 first preferences votes difference between them after the first count. By the second count, there was only the one vote between them, with Mr McGuinness on 5,070 votes and Mr Eastwood on 5,069 votes. Both were elected on the seventh count. Both parties failed to gain three seats in the constituency: despite Foyle being a stronghold for the SDLP and despite Sinn Féin’s decision to move the deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness from Mid Ulster to his native Derry. It failed to work, with previously co-opted Sinn Féin candidate Maeve McLauglin losing her seat.
  • John McCallister (Independent, Unionist) conceding in South Down before it was revealed he had been eliminated on the first count. He had resigned from the UUP to join Basil McCrea in the ill-fated NI21 new party venture, before becoming an Independent Unionist. He leaves behind a legacy in the form of the Official Opposition Act for the Assembly, which has since been utilised by both the UUP and the SDLP.
  • Upper Bann illustrating the importance of votes and effectively utilising the STV system: where do I even begin with this one. Carla Lockhart (DUP) topped the poll with 7,993 first preference votes when the quota was 6,527 votes. She was soon joined by fellow party candidate Sydney Anderson, who gained 6,195 votes and was elected on the second count. However,the battle for the remaining four seats was both tight and lengthy, spanning two days: Friday leading into late Saturday. Jo-Anne Dobson (UUP) had to wait until stage 9 to be elected to fill the third seat, but it proved to be a tense battle for the final three seats between John ‘O Dowd and Catherine Seeley (both Sinn Féin), Dolores Kelly (SDLP), and Doug Beattie (UUP). The counting dragged on into Saturday afternoon, with the rumour mill generating furiously in relation to whether or not incumbent Mrs Kelly would lose her seat, or would fellow incumbent and past-Education Minister Mr O’Dowd lose his. Mr Beattie was declared the victor for the fourth seat; despite polling the fewest first preferences out of the four (2,969) he proved to be a transfer-friendly candidate and was elected on the 11th count. After difficult and complex mathematics, including considering transfers and surplus votes, it emerged that Mr O’Dowd and Ms Seeley made it across the finishing line. Mrs Kelly, who came sixth in terms of first preferences (4,335) came seventh overall, proving that in a STV-election, first preferences alone cannot guarantee a seat. 

  • On that note – the hashtag #WaitingforUpperBann was a hoot: it was an apt comparison to draw between Beckett’s fabulous play, ‘Waiting for Godot’ and the Upper Bann count. The play is classified as the ‘theatre of the absurd’ which frankly was how the count felt at times.
  • Emma Little-Pengelly (DUP) winning the grudge match v Ruth Patterson (Independent Unionist) in Belfast South: now this was branded as a battle of the grudge. Ms Patterson had been a DUP Councillor, but was expelled from the party after she lambasted the party leadership for parachuting Emma Little-Pengelly into an Assembly seat in that constituency. Moreover, she argued the party was increasingly becoming elitist, and out of touch with grassroots. Having previously said she was considering resigning from the DUP and running as a TUV candidate in South Belfast in the May election, she ultimately opted to run as an Independent Unionist. Mrs Little-Pengelly, a trained barrister, had been a special adviser to then-First Minister Peter Robinson when she was co-opted by the DUP leadership into the Assembly in 2015 – with local councillors Ruth Patterson and Christopher Stalford overlooked at that time. Ms Patterson called Mrs Little-Pengelly “a well-paid blow-in”, and so the battle for Belfast South commenced. Her supporters believed she could snatch the final sixth seat, whilst Mr Stalford was Little Pengelly’s running-mate with only one DUP seat guaranteed. The battle raged during the campaign, with Ms Patterson voicing suggestions that Mrs Little-Pengelly changed her name to appear higher on the ballot paper. Come results night, the battle concluded with Ms Patterson only managing to secure just 475 first preference votes compared to her rival’s 4,511. She then declared she would retire from politics when her councillor term ends in 2019.
  • Joe Boyle coming painfully close in Strangford: Poor Joe Boyle. In his fourth consecutive attempt at an Assembly seat, the Ards and North Down councillor – who came within 31 votes of acquiring a seat in the 2007 Assembly election – suffered another agonising defeat in the race for the final seat. After receiving 2,724 first preference votes, Mr Boyle narrowly lost out on the sixth and final seat to the UUP’S Philip Smith. Mr Boyle found the sympathy for his loss rather staggering: comparing the atmosphere to that of a wake house, he said “I had to tell people it was an election, that nobody had died here.”
  • Jim Wells needing ID and his wife denied entry to the polling station in South Down: it was rather the shambles in the South Down count centre for the former DUP Health Minister. Starting the day in headline- grabbing form, Mr Wells was initially denied entry to the Lagan Valley LeisurePlex count centre for failing to bring identification. Then, his wife Grace was also denied entry because he did not bring proof with him that they were a married couple. Mr Wells was the first candidate to be elected, after receiving 5,033 first preferences and deemed elected on the third count. But he was angry with the manner in which he received this news, saying it was “absolutely outrageous” that his wife had to wait outside.
  • Karen McKevitt and the Constituency Coup that wasn’t: Mrs McKevitt, known for her campaign to install defibrillators across NI, had been a South Down MLA, but she contested a seat in her native Newry and Armagh instead of seeking re-election in South Down. She had made a public statement in October 2015 that she would not contest South Down, and said she was considering quitting public life altogether. By December 2015, she alongside Justin McNulty had received the SDLP’s nomination for Newry and Armagh. The daughter of former SDLP MLA PJ Bradley, Sinead, ended up standing in South Down in her stead, topping the poll on results day. Mr McNulty was elected on the ninth count, and took the final seat as Mrs McKevitt was eliminated on the very same count.
  • The Wild Wild West Tyrone: this constituency saw another political grudge match, namely Daniel McCrossan (SDLP) holding his own versus former SDLP members. They had resigned from the party, mostly as a protest due to the party selecting Mr McCrossan as its candidate for the election. Mr McCrossan had been recently co-opted into the Assembly, and sought to contest the seat in an election. Around ten office-holders and party members resigned in total, some of which decided to stand as independents in the constituency. In short, it was another case of election blues for the SDLP in the constituency: despite winning two seats in the first post Good Friday Agreement Assembly elections in 1998 it has struggled since. Until 2016. For Mr McCrossan held the seat for the party, receiving 4,287 first preferences and was elected on the eighth count. The closest an ex-SDLP party member came was Josephine Deehan, who received 1,778 first preferences.
  • Just Twitter Problems: Jimmy Menagh being ‘elected’ when actually eliminated in Strangford: for those eagle-eyed Twitter users, there was a moment of confused hilarity when several election accounts informed us that Jimmy Menagh, an Independent, was elected. They subsequently had to post a clarification, saying that he actually had been eliminated on the eighth count.
  • A Tale of Selection: Michelle Gildernew, a popular, stalwart Sinn Féin politician had a bit of a confusing start to her campaign. The former MP was initially selected to contest the constituency, alongside sitting MLA Seán Lynch and local councillor John Feely. However, she was replaced on the ticket by the then-current MLA, Phil Flanagan, who missed out on selection at a previous selection convention, after the party’s Ard Comhairle issued a revote. The party ultimately decided to run four candidates in the constituency, having held three seats. Mrs Gildernew received 6,614 first preferences, second only to Arlene Foster (DUP), and was successfully elected. Mr Lynch was successfully re-elected, but Mr Flanagan and Mr Feely were eliminated on the seventh and fourth counts respectively.
  • Whose Preference Vote is it, anyway?: One of my personal favourite moments from the May election was the weird and wonderful voting patterns brought about by the voting system. I wasn’t the only one. Two Sinn Féin candidates, Chris Hazzard (South Down; now Minister for Infrastructure in the Executive) and Daithí McKay (North Antrim; stood down in August 2016) tweeted their amusement at having gaining transfers from eliminated TUV and UKIP candidates in their constituencies. Yes: unionist, conservative candidates had votes transferred to republican candidates upon their elimination. May STV never change.
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Opposition formation and Executive woes.

Well. Thursday proved to be quite the interesting day at Stormont, as Northern Ireland politics witnessed a dramatic declaration and the formation of a formal Opposition in the Assembly Chamber. This is, to me at least, an exciting development for Northern Irish politics, and I know I will be looking forward to the new mandate.

Now, I have written extensively about the aftermath of the recent Assembly election, but what I have yet to mention on my blog is the discussion about the formation of an Official Opposition in Stormont. Before I launch into Stormont Storytime with Leah regarding the events of Thursday, allow me to elaborate on the Opposition discussion to set the scene.

Now, back in 2014 former Ulster Unionist-turned NI21 deputy Leader-turned Independent Unionist John McCallister proposed a Private Members’ Bill: a bill which aimed to significantly reform Stormont by creating an Official Opposition. It also proposed re-naming the Executive leaders as the ‘joint first ministers’ in lieu of First Minister and deputy First Minister, and reform the selection of the Speaker, so that they would no longer represent constituents and would be replaced by their party. Mr McCallister also proposed introducing collective cabinet responsibility in statute, thereby meaning that ministers who vote against Executive policy would have to resign.

This was quite the proposal, as  it should be noted the power-sharing Executive was established as a mandatory coalition as part of the Good Friday Agreement. Consequentially, there had been few formal entitlements provided for, such as special speaking time at Stormont, which is present in Westminster. Some developments for empowering opposition had been proposed in recent times. Under the finalised all-party Stormont House Agreement deal from 2014, arrangements were to have been introduced for parties entitled to a ministerial position who did not take it up to be recognised as an official opposition. This did not come to pass however, as the SHA was not implemented.

Mr McCallister had said that there was a demand for Assembly reform:

“The mood out there in the country is telling us: this thing needs to change or else it doesn’t deserve to exist; the First Minister is telling us that this place isn’t fit for purpose; I as a member of it can tell you that it is not fit for purpose.

“Either we reform it or it fails and, as somebody who believes passionately in Northern Ireland, I don’t want to see this place fail.”

He added that if Stormont did not undergo a process reform, it was at risk of losing some of its devolved powers, or even face another potential existential crisis – not exactly favourable at a time when the UK’s other devolved legislatures were tipped to receive additional responsibilities ceded from Westminster.

The bill was proposed in September 2015, in the aftermath of the now-infamous summer of Stormont crisis. Remember, that summer saw Stormont at risk of collapse as the Ulster Unionists withdrew from the power-sharing Executive and the DUP underwent a war of words with Sinn Féin following the revelation that the provisional IRA was still in existence. After that summer, the calls for reform grew louder, with many MLAs now viewing the Opposition bill more favourably than before. It would eventually receive Royal Assent on the 23rd March 2016, making perfect time for the Assembly election in May and the subsequent negotiations for Executive formation.

However, there were notable amendments to the initial bill. The full list of key reforms Mr McCallister proposed may be viewed here, but the Assembly and Executive Reform (Assembly Opposition) Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 does not include provision for enshrining collective cabinet responsibility in statute, nor did it rename the positions of First Minster and deputy First Minister. (The Office of First Minister and deputy First Minister -OFMdFM- was renamed to The Executive Office, but that was part of the streamlining of government departments, not due to the 2016 Act.) However, the 2016 Act does provide for the formation of an Opposition, and in turn provides for additional accountability, scrutiny and essentially a government-in-waiting.

That little Constitutional law tutorial will come into play, as I recall the events of Thursday. Yesterday’s events were weeks in the making, and the outcomes were thus: 1) the potential to have a cross-community Opposition, and 2) the potential to have either an Executive comprised solely of the DUP and Sinn Féin, or 3) the North Irish electorate having to head to the ballot box should the Executive fail to form by next Wednesday 25th May.

I was getting ready to sit down to the six o’clock news in the evening, when the news broke that the SDLP, the second largest Nationalist party in the Assembly, had declared its intent to enter Opposition. Firstly, I was excited because it meant my predictions were correct. Secondly and mainly, I was excited because of the constitutional significance of these decision, and I suppose I felt the thrill of knowing the SDLP would be acting in conjunction with the Ulster Unionists as an alternative, viable government-in-waiting.

You see, they were not the first to announce entering Opposition: during the first Plenary session since the election, Ulster Unionist Party Leader Mike Nesbitt announced the Ulster Unionists would be entering Opposition, “[the party] has decided unanimously to form the first Opposition” and boldly declared “let battle commence.” Cue a furore in the Chamber, and in the Press. I thought it was telling though that after Mr Nesbitt said this, SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood stated that the SDLP “want[ed] to see a Programme for Government we can sign up to, and if we can’t we will go into Opposition.” Evidently, there was grounds for entering Opposition at that stage, during Executive formation negotiations.

Just a day later, Mr Nesbitt was on BBC Talkback, where shared that in his opinion “a cross-community opposition [would be] in a stronger position than going it alone”. He may or may not have been hinting to the SDLP that the party should join the Ulster Unionists to form an Official Opposition.

Mike Nesbitt Opposition Tweet
I simply couldn’t resist this paraphrasing.

Negotiations continued, and the beginning of this week (16th May) saw the Alliance Party -one of the ‘main five’ and the only party of the main five who designate as ‘Other’ -declare its intent to withdraw from the Executive. This news must surely have prompted a headache for the DUP and Sinn Féin, the largest Unionist and Nationalist parties respectively, as it holds up the finalised formation of the Executive (of which they dominate).

Traditionally, Alliance holds the Justice portfolio since the Department’s creation following the successful devolution of justice matters to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2010. The devolution of policing and justice was pledged in the St Andrews Agreement (of October 2006) and the Hillsborough Castle Agreement (of February 2010) and occurred in April 2010. Now, per the Northern Ireland Act 1998 as amended, the Minister of Justice is elected by a cross-community vote, unlike all other Northern Ireland Executive posts, which are either allocated by the d’Hondt method or appointed directly by the largest parties ie the First Minister and the deputy First Minister . This exception was made to resolve a dispute between the DUP and Sinn Féin; policing and justice matters are sensitive matters, given the history of conflict in Northern Ireland, and these parties did not want the post to become politicised at the hands of one another. Alliance stepped in, nominated Party Leader David Ford to post in April 2010 and successfully availed of the cross-community vote exception.

Mr Ford held the portfolio until the recent Assembly election, but it had been assumed by many – including the DUP and Sinn Féin, I would imagine – Alliance would again take the portfolio in the new mandate. Mr Ford may have declared his intention not to seek re-election to the post before the Assembly’s dissolution, but I suppose we assumed another Alliance MLA would take up the nomination instead. However, Mr Ford said he was not in a position to recommend to his party to take on the portfolio once more. n Alliance Party delegation left Stormont Castle after a meeting with Ms Foster and Mr McGuinness that only lasted 10 minutes yesterday. Then came the announcement that Alliance’s ruling council endorsed the party’s decision not to take up the Justice Ministry.  Mr Ford said the Alliance party’s recommendations, which “would have moved Northern Ireland forward and created a better society for all”, were “rejected by the DUP and Sinn Féin”and so the party felt it could not enter into the Executive. And this causes quite the problem.

As previously mentioned, the Justice Ministry was always held by Alliance because of the politically-sensitive issues which stem from policing and justice matters. It was considered politically astute to have an ‘Other’ party occupy the post, to prevent claims of discrimination, bias etc. should a Nationalist or Unionist party hold the position. Which begs the question: if Alliance remain steadfastly opposed to taking the post, what happens next?

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, has warned that if there is not a nomination for the post, fresh elections must be called. This is not the route anyone wants to take, surely. The recent election was gruelling enough for the parties, and canvassers and candidates have most likely not even recovered from campaigning. Moreover, I doubt the electorate will be impressed with the behaviour and actions witnesses at Stormont over the recent days, meaning there could be a poor turnout. Any Assembly elected from a low turnout vote cannot claim to be representative, or in possession of a mandate.

The logical option in my humble opinion is to turn to the de facto Constitution of Northern Ireland – the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The 1998 Act as amended provides an alternative means to ensure the filling of a department post. S21A of the 1998 Act concentrates specifically on a ‘department with policing and justice functions’ so naturally could be applied in this instance. S21A(3) states the elevation of an Assembly member to the post of Justice Minister can be achieved through the nomination of the First Minister and deputy First Minister acting jointly, and passed by a majority cross-community vote. Seems rather standard – the Assembly in the Department of Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 2010, opted to use the provisions from subsection 3 to have the Minister nominated by an MLA and approved by a cross community vote in the Assembly, cue the successful election of Mr Ford.

But the Act also provides the proverbial ‘get out of jail free card’ should the former process prove unavailable, such as in the case at hand. S21A(4) provides ‘for the department to be in the charge of two Northern Ireland Ministers acting jointly’, and (5)(a) elaborates on this, by providing for the department to be in the charge of a Northern Ireland Minister who is supported by a junior Minister. It could be reasonably deduced that the drafters of S21A were aware of the politically sensitive nature of the department, were aware of the context behind it, and foresaw there could be the occasion when the post could not be filled by one MLA. Subsection 4 provides for a balanced approach, ensuring power-sharing between Nationalists and Unionists to allay any concerns about one party dominating the position. This is evidenced further by the inclusion of (5)(b) which provides for those jointly holding the office ‘to rotate at intervals determined by or under the Act’ meaning the person who was the Minister in charge of the department becomes the junior Minister, and the person who was the junior Minister becomes the Minister.

So, could the DUP and Sinn Féin avail of this provision, thereby resulting in an Executive comprised solely of these parties? Maybe, maybe not. It seems theoretically unlikely that the DUP would accept a Republican Justice Minister; even if the Sinn Féin MLA occupied the junior Minister position initially, the role would rotate in time.

As Ms Foster and Mr McGuinness seemingly sought to solve this issue on their own, they held talks with the Green MLAs, and independent Unionist Claire Sugden. Whether these were legitimate talks with the aim of attempting to ascertain whether one of these MLAs could take the post of Justice Minister, or simply a way to call the bluff of Alliance remains to be seen. My own thought was that at this rate, the Executive may end up comprising of the DUP, Sinn Féin, a collection of tumbleweeds, and the kitchen sink.

With this in the background, SDLP Party Leader Mr Eastwood, who had said he was “very disappointed” over the negotiation talks, announced that the party will go into Opposition. Mr Eastwood said the SDLP would work with anyone who was happy to work with them, but “this will be a positive and constructive opposition, not opposition for opposition’s sake.”  It was a bold decision, he said, but it was a necessary one to make as it was now evident the “other parties are not prepared to work on a Programme for Government that can bring about that change.” Moreover, it was submitted that as the SDLP has its own mandate from the electorate to work towards, the party aims to work to that mandate and stand by its policies.

I thought it was interesting and rather significant to hear Mr Eastwood say one of the party’s given reasons for withdrawing from the Executive:

“We wanted to put together a Programme for Government with actions, implementations and things that we could all be held accountable for. The DUP and Sinn Fein did not want to do that, so we were not prepared to sign up.”

It suggests the SDLP are prepared to have a collective cabinet responsibility of sorts implemented, of the sort initially proposed by John McCallister in his original Opposition Bill. I feel it is illustrative of the progressive politics promised by the party in their manifesto, of parties being subjected to scrutiny and being accountable to the people of Northern Ireland.

However, after meeting with the SDLP the First Minister and deputy First Minister were evidently unimpressed with the party’s decision to withdraw from the Executive. Ms Foster and Mr McGuinness issued a joint statement, accusing the SDLP of dishonesty and utilising media tactics and spin in a quest to stay relevant:

“For the SDLP to now claim they do not agree with the Programme for Government process is dishonest given that they were part of developing it.

“The new PfG has not been plucked out of thin air. It has involved extensive consultation with political parties in the Executive, including the SDLP, dating back to last December.

“The SDLP were involved in this process every step of the way. At no stage during it did they raise any objections, concerns or, more importantly, alternatives to this planned approach.

“The SDLP attended four workshops on the development of the new PfG from December to February.

“These workshops clearly set out the objectives for May, and a further later phase setting out specific actions to be taken.

“You would have to question why at this stage – and because of the SDLP involvement from the outset – they now say the framework they were fully involved in lacks ambition.”

“Either the SDLP had no intention of joining the new Executive and are playing to the gallery and the media.

“Or, they failed to grasp the new approach to government and are not up for the challenges ahead.

“Or, in an act of desperation inspired by their poor election result, they are now preparing to slavishly follow the Ulster Unionist Party out of government.

“We are committed to putting together the best possible PfG that will create more and better jobs and investment in our health service, our schools and support for the most vulnerable in society.”

I feel the tone and rhetoric here is rather uncalled for. I understand it is used for reasons of political PR, but words such as ‘act of desperation’ and ‘slavishly follow’ should not be used for political point-scoring by the First Minister and deputy First Minister. I don’t know about you, but I do think that it is rather ironic that parties which signed up to the Fresh Start Agreement I mentioned previously, which provided for the establishment of an Official Opposition (see Section F) in particular, now complain when an Official Opposition looks set to be created.

This is not an instance of going ‘out of government’ per the joint statement from Thursday. This is an instance of two parties opting to form an Opposition which seeks to be constructive, effective and increase accountability in the Assembly. I see no fault here. Far from abandoning the power-sharing principles of the Good Friday Agreement, these parties are offering a power-sharing Opposition to mirror a power-sharing Executive. This appears to be the Good Friday Agreement for 2016, a sign of Northern Irish politics maturing and progressing. This should be welcomed and encouraged, not sneeringly dismissed.

A power-sharing Executive versus a power-sharing Opposition. Stormont looks set to be very interesting in this mandate.

Politico Thoughts: AE16 edition.

With over one week since voting closed, and exactly one week since the counting of votes commenced, I am utterly unashamed to admit there is rather the Assembly election-shaped hole in my heart. I suppose this was to be expected, given my excitement at finally being able to participate in an Assembly election, from watching the campaigns unfold to dropping my vote into the ballot box for the first time. Although I had always followed Assembly elections in the past despite not being eligible to vote, it is a different feeling altogether to follow results, knowing that your vote is included in the tallies.

It also means that for the first time, I can offer my thoughts on the Assembly election, having actually been able to participate myself.

Once the counting of votes commenced, it soon became apparent that there would be upsets and surprises along the way towards filling the Assembly chamber. However, the overall feeling, soon to be realised, was that it would be a case of ‘same old, same old’ at Stormont, with the DUP returned as the largest Unionist party, and Sinn Féin returned as the largest Nationalist party. In terms of other parties: Alliance came through with eight seats, the same result from the previous mandate, whilst the SDLP and Ulster Unionists had, by their own standards, a poor showing at the polls.

Once votes were totalled, and the final tally called, it was noted that generally it was a loss of sorts for all of the ‘big five’ in terms of votes cast in their favour. All saw a decrease in accumulated votes, and not one party polled over 30% of the vote:

The DUP received 29.2% of the first-preference vote, the largest of any of the big five, but still recorded a 0.8% loss in votes.
Sinn Féin received 24.0% first-preference votes, but saw a 2.9% drop.
The UUP received 12.6% of the first-preference votes, but saw a 0.7% decline in their vote.
The SDLP received 12% of the first-preference votes, and recorded a 2.2% decrease in their vote.
Alliance
received 7.0% of first-preferences, and recorded a loss of 0.7% of their vote.

We saw also how the overall Nationalist vote declined, following the trends from previous elections, and a surge in votes for periphery parties outside of the ‘big five’. There was a strong, consistent voting turnout, dispelling prior fears of a substantial decline in electorate turnout. However, there was still a significant percentage of the electorate who did not vote, as turnout was recorded at 54.91%.

Essentially, the Assembly Election of 2016 can be summarised as follows:

DUP campaign was a master-class
I have to hold my hand up and admit I was wrong that the constant refrain of ‘Arlene Foster’s DUP candidates’ and ‘keep Arlene as First Minister’ would eventually distance voters. Judging by the votes acquired and seats collected by the party, their campaign was basically a master-class. The message was clear and consistent, and acted as a rallying cry for Unionist-inclined voters. When the theme of your campaign resonates and connects with voters, it will translate into votes. It is noticeable then that the DUP was returned as a the largest party, and whilst recorded votes for the dropped slightly, it did not lose seats, which had at one time been predicted.

On the same note, I had criticised the constant reference to the position of First Minister, and the symbolic importance attached to same. Now, whilst I still remain convinced that too much of the campaign was spent discussing this, and I am certain young people/first-time voters were turned off by the discussion, traditional Unionist voters must have been convinced by the arguments. Again, it was a clear and consistent refrain, with a target audience.

The SDLP and UUP suffered from their lack of vote management
I mentioned earlier that the SDLP and the UUP, who had been hoping to see a strong resurgence translating into an equally-strong election performance, did not have a good election by their standards. The UUP returned with 16 seats, with party leader Mike Nesbitt having predicted the party would take 18 or 19. The SDLP had been hoping to hold on to their previous 14 seats, but suffered two overall losses, as well as losing Deputy Leader Fearghal McKinney in South Belfast, party Whip Karen McKevitt in Newry and Armagh, and party stalwart Dolores Kelly in Upper Bann.

Simply put, both parties may have suffered from a touch of over-confidence, but I feel their respective performances largely stem from poor selection and vote management. Note that I do not mean ‘poor selection’ in the form of chosen candidates to contest seats; I mean ‘poor selection’ in where to contest and in the number of standing candidates.

The UUP stood multiple candidates in areas where they should have stood one – East Antrim, East Belfast, and South Antrim spring to mind. In a STV election, it is crucial to manage your candidates’ votes, especially in terms of first and second preferences. Standing too many candidates risks splitting the vote, and can result in only one, or indeed none of your candidates being elected. In South Antrim, my neck of the woods, the UUP were buoyed by a surprise General Election victory last year. Perhaps thinking this would be replicated at Assembly level, it stood three candidates in a DUP stronghold. The result being the incumbent UUP MLA for the constituency, Adrian-Cochrane Watson, was eliminated at stage four of the count. There was only one UUP candidate elected – Steve Aiken – and he had to wait until the seventh and last count to be elected.

The SDLP struggled with vote management in areas where it stood several candidates. In tightly-contested South Belfast, the party really should have returned both MLAs. Instead, Claire Hanna was returned and Fearghal McKinney eliminated. My issue with McKinney is he was selected to contest the wrong constituency. As a former television presenter and journalist, his face was recognisable and popular with a certain generation. South Belfast however has a sizeable youth vote, and those voters would not have known him.
In a similar vein, Karen McKevitt was an incumbent MLA for South Down, but was chosen to contest Newry and Armagh instead- a choice which cost her a seat. The party also had to focus disproportionally on Foyle, as Sinn Féin opted to move Martin McGuinness from Mid Ulster to Foyle to put the SDLP under pressure. This focus ensured party leader Colum Eastwood and stalwart Mark H Durkan were returned, but it cost the party time and attention in other marginal constituencies.

45-46% of the electorate did not vote
It says a lot about our standards of election turnout that the final result of 54.91% was greeted with a sigh of relief. You may say, “but Leah, that’s over half of the registered electorate, surely that is good enough?” The fact of the matter is that it isn’t, not really.

45% is still a number of some significance. (Remember that 45% voted for Scottish Independence in the Scottish referendum in 2014.) It suggests there are voters who feel disenchanted, and/or disillusioned with the political system in Northern Ireland. It suggests a continuing disconnect between politics and people in this state. If citizens are choosing not to vote, parties need to find out why. Otherwise, no party can claim to represent all citizens.

Moreover, note how I previously outlined the voting breakdown among the five main parties. Not one polled 30% plus of the vote – and that is 30% of the vote from 54.91% who voted. You can see why there are some in Northern Ireland who feel there is a democratic deficit at Stormont.

Nationalism saw another decline in turnout and votes
Nationalism may be suffering a malaise: the pattern of declining Nationalist turnout was further underscored following the 2016 Assembly election. The combined Sinn Féin-SDLP share of the overall vote was merely 36%, marking the lowest combined share of the vote for the parties at Assembly, Westminster or European level since the 1992 Westminster election which saw the SDLP and Sinn Féin gather 23.5% and 10% of the overall vote respectively. The consistent decrease in Nationalist turnout has become a pattern that surely cannot ignored by either party; both parties must ask questions here. From comments issued by both the SDLP and Sinn Féin elected representatives following the election last week, it appears neither party actually knows what exactly is going on with Nationalist voters.

Now, declining turnout can be explained in one of two ways:
1) Discontent with the status quo, and/or increasing alienation from ‘your’ party based on its political performance, or
2) Apathy derived from complacency- sometimes voters who adhere to tribal politics do not vote, because they believe ‘their’ party is secure enough as it is, thank you very much.

I will probably address the decline of the Nationalist vote in another post (it deserves one in its own right), but I feel that what is essentially happening is that Nationalist voters are not rejecting Nationalism, but rather are sending a message to Nationalist parties. It is a case of ‘rebel’ votes to jolt the parties awake, to remind them of their pledges to deliver on change, and simply to keep them on their toes.

Rise of smaller parties
No summary of the Assembly elections in 2016 is complete without mentioning the surge in votes for the periphery parties, and the performances of Eamonn McCann and Gerry Carroll of People Before Profit Alliance, and Claire Bailey of the Greens. Simply put, this was an amazing showing by all three candidates, who were duly elected MLAs.

I had expected Carroll to nab a seat, but the sheer size of his victory – polling first with 8,299 votes, over 3,000 more than the quota and his nearest rival – was something else. This was a shake-up in West Belfast, a traditional Sinn Féin stronghold, and caused the party to lose one of their five seats. This victory was long in coming: Carroll had contested the General Election in 2015, and came second to Paul Maskey. The incumbent MP did poll 19,163 votes to Carroll’s 6,798, but saw a loss of 16.8% of the vote, with Carroll polling at 19.2%. Carroll had also contested the 2011 Assembly election, and whilst finished outside the sixth place, still came eighth with 1,661 votes and 4.8% of the vote. Basically, People Before Profit had been gaining support and momentum in the background over five years, which saw that fantastic first place come to fruition.

Eamonn McCann, who has been contesting elections since 1969, was finally elected as a People Before Profit MLA for Foyle. He is a well-known political activist, especially in relation to civil rights, and has worked as journalist and commentator for a variety of newspapers and television stations over the years. He has a reputation as a powerful orator and debateur, so he will surely enlighten the Assembly chamber over the next five years. Mr McCann again gained on momentum over five years in Foyle: in 2011, he polled 3,120 votes and 8.0% of the vote (he actually polled more first preferences than Column Eastwood, who would eventually become the SDLP party leader). McCann may have had to wait until the eighth and final stage to be elected, but he had polled 4,176 first preferences and 10.5% of the vote. His election meant that incumbents Maeve McLaughlin (SF) and Gerard Diver (SDLP) were both outpolled, and were unelected. In sum: in both West Belfast and Foyle, Nationalist parties lost out to People Before Profit.

Claire Bailey of the Greens had been widely tipped to take a seat in South Belfast, where she was a popular candidate, especially among the youth and liberal voters. She polled an impressive 3,521 first preferences and some 9.6% of the vote, more than the unfortunate SDLP Deputy Leader Fearghal McKinney. She had to wait until the 12th and final stage of counting to be a confirmed MLA, but I think it is telling she was confirmed with the two DUP candidates, Emma Little-Pengally and Christopher Stalford. The DUP was pleased to see both these candidates elected, but Bailey forced a tight contest, acting as a metaphor for the electorate change in South Belfast. Her election marked a historic moment for the NI Greens, as the party saw their second ever MLA elected.

Periphery party surge v master class campaign
I suppose what intrigued me most about the election campaign and the subsequent result was trying to determine what exactly was the reason behind the voting. I think it comes down to asking whether it a case of the DUP gaining votes because of their successful campaign, or did the other parties lose due to various reasons?

Arguably, Sinn Féin and the SDLP lost out in Foyle and West Belfast (Carroll’s strong polling in the latter constituency nearly cost SDLP’s Alex Attwood his seat) because of the emergence of an alternative left-wing party in People Before Profit. The two Nationalist parties traditionally occupy left-wing ground, so to be outflanked in their strongholds must have been something of a shock.

The UUP arguably lost due to over-confidence in polling predictions, and their poor vote management. But they probably also lost Unionist votes from those who could have been swayed from the DUP. The UUP could have capitalised on some DUP voters’ disillusionment after the party’s long stint in government. They failed to do so, perhaps because the campaign message was never really clear, for example on the issue of whether the party wanting to go into the Executive, or Opposition. By contrast, as I outlined previously, the DUP message was concise, clear and consistent: keep Arlene First Minister, and prevent Sinn Féin from becoming the largest party at Stormont. As the UUP did not prove themselves to be the viable, alternative Unionist party, I think some potential swing voters followed the tried and tested ‘stick with what you know’ method.

Another party which lost was Alliance. The rise of the Greens illustrated the growing role of social issues in Northern Ireland, be it on same-sex marriage or abortion. This is especially true among young voters and first-time voters. The Greens designate as Other, and argue for a shake-up of the traditional tribal politics. Sound familiar? It should. The Alliance party has been portraying itself as the alternative political party for those who are alienated by green versus orange politics since its founding in 1970. Yet, whilst the Greens gained two seats, Alliance could only retain its original eight. The party cannot argue it suffered from a lack of demand for new politics: the Green surge, especially in South Belfast, is evident that such a demand exists. All the main parties recorded a decrease in their vote share, and all main parties must now consider the importance of social issues and rights. But Alliance must also consider a rising challenge to their main ‘Other’ title.

I feel the aforementioned points are food for thought as it is, but I will leave you with some final contemplations.

I think the new focus and discussion of social issues made a visible impact in constituencies such as North Down and South Belfast. These constituencies saw strong inroads made by the Greens. I do however think the DUP rally cry boosted Unionist turnout across board, resulting in their impressive performance. Impressive, in that despite spending many years as the largest party at Stormont, they did not lose any seats in 2016.

My own constituency of South Antrim may have seen a shock upset in 2015 in the General Election, with Danny Kinahan of the UUP dethroning the Rev William McCrea of the DUP. Kinahan polled some 32.7% of the vote, a 2.3% increase for the UUP. McCrea polled 30.1%, recording a 3.8% decrease for the DUP vote.The statistics showed there could have (arguably should have) been a potential loss for the DUP here in 2016. The DUP however romped home, seeing all three incumbent MLAs returned. The UUP, who saw only one of three candidiates elected and the loss of their own incumbent, simply failed to capitalise on the gains made the previous year, and perhaps forgot that Assembly elections are more competitive and more complex in terms of voting method than Westminster elections – Kinahan was elected using First Past the Post, after all.

Given the rise of People Before Profit in both Foyle and West Belfast, arguably Sinn Féin and the SDLP not only have to contend and compete with each other, they now have defend themselves from the further left. All this, whilst still attempting to figure out the continuing decline in the Nationalist vote. Unionist parties may seemingly be unaffected by the surge; it is unlikely that a voter could swing from the DUP for example to People Before Profit – or indeed vice versa.

However, West Belfast saw what could have been the biggest opportunity for a historic DUP gain lost to the winds, as Frank McCoubrey lost to Alex Attwood of the SDLP by only 97 votes in the final stage. What may have harmed the DUP here was the complex workings of the STV method, preferences and transfer votes. Gerry Carroll polled so strongly that he had many surplus votes to disseminate. A quick glance at the stage-per-stage breakdown shows that Alex Attwood of the SDLP was one of the grateful recipients, not Frank McCoubrey. A strong Socialist showing meant McCoubrey would not stand to make gains as a DUP candidate. In addition, in such a Nationalist area, the SDLP stand to be the ‘transfer-friendly’ party, meaning the candidate, in this instance Alex Attwood, would receive more transfer votes from eliminated candidates. To put this in the most diplomatic terms, some of the electorate will opt to give the SDLP a preference vote not because they personally support the party, but because they are trying to eliminate a Sinn Féin candidate. (Welcome to the Northern Irish equivalent of tactical voting.) Moreover, whilst West Belfast is predominately a Republican stronghold, there are areas which identify as Unionist. These areas would have generally voted McCoubrey as their first preference, but there would have been some Unionist voters who gave Attwood their first or second preferences as a means of reducing the chances of Sinn Féin retaining their five seats. Some Unionist voters may have viewed McCoubrey as a long-shot in the overall context of West Belfast, and thus voted SDLP as the moderate alternative to Sinn Féin. (This is not that unusual. My granny, a Twaddell resident all of her life, used to tactically vote for the SDLP’s Gerry Fitt despite being staunchly Unionist.)

The 2016 Assembly election has concluded, but rest assured the analysing of the results will continue for many months to come.

 

May 2016: devolved elections guide.

The whispers of promises are trickling through the devolved regions of the UK. It is that time once more: regional elections, and everything has surely kicked off, given the amount of media coverage now devoted to campaigns. As I noted previously, Scotland and Wales join Northern Ireland in heading to the polls on the 5th May, and I had promised that I would write a post about the devolved elections. So let’s get stuck in.

There is no doubt that the coming months will be busy, and important ones for the UK electorate, with elections for police and crime commissioners, regional and local governments and four cities electing a mayor on 5th May. And of course, we cannot forget that tiny matter of the UK’s referendum on its future within the European Union, taking place on the 23rd June. Democracy will be in action, as those eligible to do so exercise their right to vote. As regular readers may know, this May marks my first time voting in Northern Ireland’s regional elections. I am looking forward to taking part in electing representatives to the Assembly, and I feel passionately voting. I feel that we are most fortunate to be able to have our say, to have the opportunity to vote, and so I will confess to being perplexed at those who do not drop that little slip of paper into the ballot box. Did you know that the Electoral Commission has previously estimated that up to 7.5 million eligible voters are not registered to have their say? That number staggers me. 7.5 million people across the UK are not on the electoral register, cannot exercise their right to vote and thus arguably are not participants of our democratic society.

That is not all. The Electoral Commission has also warned that the British government’s new rules in relation to individual registration has actually resulted in more people to disappear from electoral rolls. Students, for example, must now sign themselves up individually rather than being included in a hall of residence mass registration or as part of their family’s household, meaning that there are fewer young people are on the electoral register. Moreover, there are those people who, unaware of the new changes, may simply assume that they are still registered. Despite the registration process being more straightforward than before, the Electoral Commission says 40% of British voters are unaware they can register online in just five minutes. And as the Commission itself said:

“Online registration has made it much easier for people to register to vote, so it’s vital everyone knows it exists…”

You see, fun fact: no one is automatically registered on to the electoral roll. In 2014 the system underwent a change in an effort to reduce fraud. The result being that whole-household registrations no longer happen, so that every person must now sign up individually. Now, most people who were already registered were transferred to the new system, but a minority were not. Letters were sent out to inform people whether or not they were on the register, but generally it is safer to contact your local electoral registration office to find out, instead of assuming you are still registered.

Before I launch into the various upcoming elections taking place on the 5th May, I thought I would share the interesting little differences between the devolved regions in relation to voter registration and voting. (The little details interest me, I make no excuses for this.)

Regarding the registration process, voters in England, Scotland and Wales are able to register online or through posting a registration form to their local electoral registration office. These paper forms may be accessed online, or collected from the local electoral registration office. In Northern Ireland however, only the latter option is available – we are not able to register online, which I have noticed has proven to be a source of frustration to many recently. We can but hope that Northern Ireland will eventually provide this online option. However, for all of the regions, it is possible to apply for a postal, or proxy vote using a postal form. (When I initially considered spending longer in the US last year, I had considered applying for a proxy vote to ensure I had my say in determining my local MP.)

Differences between the nations comprising the UK are also evident in relation to who can register to vote. Anyone over the age of 16 is eligible to register, but you must be 18 before you can actually vote in Northern Ireland, Wales, and England. This includes British citizens, qualifying Commonwealth citizens (those who have leave to remain in the UK or do not require leave) and citizens of the Republic of Ireland who residing in the UK. Yet in Scotland, 16 year olds and 17 year olds are now allowed to vote in Scottish elections, following the change in law for the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014.

IMG_9767[1]
My poll card for the upcoming Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. This is confirmation of my being on the electoral register.
And now, let us turn to my breakdown of the upcoming elections occurring across the UK on the 5th May.

Firstly, the following elections will be taking place:

  • Scottish Parliament;
  • Welsh Assembly;
  • Northern Ireland Assembly;
  • Local council elections in England;
  • Mayor of London and London Assembly;
  • Police and crime commissioner elections; and
  • Mayoral elections in Bristol, Liverpool and Salford.

Yes, even though England does not have a devolved government, it is still going to the polls in certain areas on the same day as the devolved nations. I will cover England first, before working through the aforementioned devolved nations.

England

England will see a lot of council elections taking place.

A third of council seats are up for election in 32 of 36 Metropolitan boroughs. Fun fact: all but five of these are Labour held, and include: Barnsley, Birmingham, Bolton, Bradford, Bury, Calderdale, Coventry, Dudley, Gateshead, Kirklees, Knowsley, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, North Tyneside, Oldham, Rochdale, Rotherham, St Helens, Salford, Sandwell, Sefton, Sheffield, Solihull, South Tyneside, Stockport, Sunderland, Tameside, Trafford, Wakefield, Walsall, Wigan, Wirral and Wolverhampton.

Moving on- twelve district councils have all of their seats up for election. These are mostly are Conservative controlled towns, like Colchester, Gloucester and Woking. Seven district councils have half of their seats up for election.

In addition, there are a further 52 councils which see a third of their seats being contested. These comprise of a mix of mostly Labour and Conservative controlled towns across England. They include: Adur, Amber Valley, Basildon, Basingstoke & Deane, Brentwood, Broxbourne, Burnley, Cambridge, Cannock Chase, Carlisle, Castle Point, Cheltenham, Cherwell, Chorley, Colchester, Craven, Crawley, Daventry, Eastleigh, Elmbridge, Epping Forest, Exeter, Fareham, Gloucester, Gosport, Great Yarmouth, Harlow, Harrogate, Hart, Hastings, Havant, Huntingdonshire, Hyndburn, Ipswich, Lincoln, Maidstone, Mole Valley, Newcastle-under-Lyme, North Hertfordshire, Norwich, Nuneaton & Bedworth, Oxford, Pendle, Preston, Redditch, Reigate & Banstead, Rochford, Rossendale, Rugby, Runnymede, Rushmoor, St Albans, South Cambridgeshire, South Lakeland, Stevenage, Stroud, Tamworth, Tandridge, Three Rivers, Tunbridge Wells, Watford, Welwyn Hatfield, West Lancashire, West Oxfordshire, Weymouth & Portland, Winchester, Woking, Worcester, Worthing and Wyre Forest.

To conclude the council elections, three unitary councils – Bristol, Peterborough, Warrington – will see all their seats up for election, whilst 16 others have a third of seats under contest, including: Blackburn with Darwen, Derby, Halton, Hartlepool, Kingston-upon-Hull, Milton Keynes, North East Lincolnshire, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Reading, Slough, Southampton, Southend-on-Sea, Swindon, Thurrock and Wokingham.

And finally, saving the most well-known for last: in London there are 25 Assembly places up for grabs, as well as the main role of mayor. Will Sadiq Khan reclaim the post for Labour, or can Zac Goldsmith somehow manage an upset against predictions, and take the role for the Conservatives? I must say, my money (if I were a gambling gal, which I am not) is on Mr Khan.

And now, let’s take a look at the Celtic nations, starting with Scotland.

Scotland

In Scotland, the nation will vote to elect 129 members to the Scottish Parliament (‘MSPs’). The Scottish Parliament went into dissolution on 24th March 2016, thereby allowing the official period of campaigning to get underway.

Five parties had MSPs in the previous parliament: Scottish National Party (SNP) led by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish Labour Party led by Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Conservatives led by Ruth Davidson, Scottish Liberal Democrats led by Willie Rennie, and lastly the Scottish Greens, led by their co-conveners Patrick Harvie and Maggie Chapman.

The Scottish Parliament uses a system called the Additional Members System, designed to produce approximate proportional representation for each region. There are 8 regions, each sub-divided into smaller constituencies, and there are a total of 73 constituencies. Each constituency elects one MSP by the plurality (first past the post) system of election. Each region elects 7 additional MSPs using an additional member system. A modified D’Hondt method, using the constituency results, is used to elect these additional MSPs.

The SNP, the Scottish Labour Party, the Scottish Conservative Party and the Scottish Liberal Democrats are fielding candidates in all constituencies. The SNP are predicted to remain the largest party, and may in fact gain votes and seats off the back of its landslide victory in last year’s Westminster General election. If 2015 is repeated, Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats could be in trouble. We may end up with the situation whereby the Scottish Conservatives overtake Scottish Labour in terms of seats in Holyrood.

This promises to be an intriguing and exciting election; note that the SNP are floating the idea of holding another Scottish independence referendum in the near future should they be returned to government.

Wales

Wales will take to the polls to elect members of the National Assembly for Wales (AMs). It will be the fifth election for the National Assembly, the third election taken under the rules of the Government of Wales Act 2006 and the first since the Wales Act 2014.

The previous election in 2011 resulted in gains for the Welsh Labour Party, which gained four seats compared to the 2007 election and currently holds 30 seats, exactly half of the Assembly, one short of an overall majority. The party also secured a swing in its favour of over 10 percentage points. The Welsh Conservatives are currently the largest opposition party with 14 seats, a net gain of two from 2007, but former party leader Nick Bourne lost his seat. The junior party in the government coalition, the nationalist Plaid Cymru, suffered a drop in its vote, losing 4 seats and its place in the coalition, with the Labour Party choosing to govern alone after their gains. The Welsh Liberal Democrats lost significantly in the popular vote and returned five AMs, a loss of one.

In elections for the National Assembly for Wales, each voter has two votes in a mixed member system. The first vote is for a candidate to become the Assembly Member for the voter’s constituency, elected by the first past the post system. The second vote is for a regional closed party list of candidates. Additional member seats are allocated from the lists by the d’Hondt method, with constituency results being taken into account in the allocation. The overall result is approximately proportional. Altogether, 60 AMs are elected from the 40 constituencies and five electoral regions, creating an Assembly of 40 constituency AMs and 20 additional AMs. Every constituent is represented by one constituency AM and four regional AMs.

Fun fact: the previous restriction on the ability to stand in both a constituency and a regional list was lifted by the Wales Act 2014. The 2014 Act also removes the ability to dual mandate with the House of Commons; an Assembly Member will no longer be allowed to also be an MP.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, my little corner of the world, the electorate will head to the ballot box to elect members of the Assembly (MLAs).

Now, there is a bit of explaining to do in relation to the elections being held in 2016. You see, under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 – consider this a constitution of sorts for Northern Ireland – elections to the Assembly were originally for a four-year term, thus there would have been an election due in May 2015, four years after the 2011 election. But following the introduction of the UK Fixed Term Parliaments Act, this date would have clashed with the 2015 UK General Election. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections were postponed for a year to 2016 to avoid this clash. 

In May 2013, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers announced the next Assembly election would be postponed to May 2016, and would be held at fixed intervals of 5 years thereafter. S7 of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014 specifies that elections will be held on the first Thursday in May on the fifth (rather than fourth, as previously) calendar year following that in which its predecessor was elected. And so here we are, heading to the polls on the 5th May 2016, five years after the last Assembly election.

Nine parties (and a number of independents) held seats in the Assembly under the previous mandate. The DUP (originally lead by Peter Robinson, who has since been replaced by Arlene Foster) were the largest party overall, and the largest Unionist party with 38 seats and had acquired 29.3% of the vote in 2011. The second largest party overall, and the largest Nationalist party was Sinn Féin, who held 29 seats and had gained 26.3% of the 2011 vote. Gerry Adams is the President of the party, but since he left to enter the Dáil in the South, Martin McGuinness is de facto party leader in the North. The third largest party was the SDLP, originally led by Alasdair McDonnell, since replaced by Colum Eastwood. The SDLP had 14 seats, and had won 13.9% of the vote in 2011. The fourth largest party was the Ulster Unionist Party, led by Tom Elliott until 2012, when he was replaced by Mike Nesbitt. They had had 16 seats after winning 12.9% of the 2011 vote, but by the time of the Assembly’s recent dissolution had 13 seats, reducing the party to the fourth largest.

After the traditional Unionist/Nationalist designed parties, we have the Alliance party, led by David Ford. They had held 8 seats, from the 7.7% share of the 2011 vote. Jim Allister of the TUV held the party’s sole seat, as did Steven Agnew of the Green NI. UKIP held a seat in the guise of David McNarry, and the party which promised so much but sadly burnt out, NI 21, had one seat held by party leader Basil McCrea. McCrea and McNarry will not be contesting their seats this coming May.

Each of the 18 constituencies elects six members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) so there are a total of 108 MLAs.  These elections use a system of proportional representation, known as the Single Transferable Vote (STV) with voters ranking candidates in order of preference. Under STV, candidates are elected according to the share of vote they receive, the size of the electorate, and the number of seats to be filled. Voters may rank candidates in order of preference, giving each a number, and they can choose as many or as few as they like. For each constituency a ‘quota’ must be determined which establishes the minimum number of votes a candidate requires to be elected.

The 2016 Assembly election shall be the first since the end of ‘double jobbing’, or the practice of having a dual mandate. This is again due to the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014, which prohibits someone being elected to the Assembly who is also a member of the UK House of Commons or the Irish Dáil Éireann. At the time the Act was passed, there were three such dual-members: the DUP’s Sammy Wilson (MP for East Antrim and a MLA for East Antrim) and Gregory Campbell (MP for East Londonderry and a MLA for East Londonderry) and the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell (MP for Belfast South and a MLA for Belfast South). Wilson and McDonnell resigned from the Assembly after being re-elected to the House of Commons in the 2015 election. Campbell, who was also re-elected as an MP, recently announced his retirement from the Assembly

Police and Crime Commissioners

Voting will take place in 40 police areas in England and Wales, excluding London, where the Mayor is classed as the PCC for the Metropolitan Police.

There are also separate governance arrangements for the City of London police, and Manchester, where the role of PCC is set to be abolished in 2017, and replaced by a directly elected mayor.

And thus concludes my equivalent of a May 2016 guide. I would advise you to follow the elections, if they are relevant to you, because the formation of a new legislature and government is important. This is especially true for fellow law students, given that the both the newly-elected governments and legislatures will propose policy which will result in the creation of bills and law.

Rest assured that I will be following the election in Northern Ireland carefully. As a first time voter, I am excited to finally be able to take part. But this also promises to be an exciting election, with the potential to see the political landscape shift. The 5th May could be a very interesting day indeed. We must wait and see the outcome of the devolved elections. Until then – make sure you vote.

Something democratic this way comes.

Leaflets through the letterbox. Party political broadcasts on the television. Posters on lampposts. Smiling canvassers braving the temperamental weather. It can only be one thing: it must be election season in Northern Ireland.

Yes, come the 5th May the electorate of Northern Ireland shall take to the polling stations, ready to submit their vote in the standard black ballot box. For some, it shall simply be a case of ‘same old, same old’ whereby they will vote according to the traditional dividing lines of tribal politics. For others, it marks the opportunity to vote for change, to vote for something new – perhaps opting for the periphery parties, who reside outside of the main five in the Northern Irish political scene.

For myself, this is rather the exciting moment. The 5th May will mark a red-letter day for me, in that it shall be my first time voting in the Assembly elections. (The Westminster General Election in May 2015 was my very first time voting, full stop.) I finally have the opportunity to have my say in electing my local representatives to Stormont, after years of waiting and watching my family members to to the local polling stations. The political aficionado that I am, you may rest assured that I am eagerly following any and all election coverage available.

When I was younger, my primary school would close for the day of the election. I can recall accompanying my parents to our polling station, and watch as they dropped their ballot slip into the black box. It seemed strange to young me that these pieces of paper could dictate who would enter government. I used to think that to count the votes, and announce who had won must be the most exciting job available. I also used to look upon the candidates, resplendent with their party rosettes as they stood outside the polling stations, attempting to garner a few last-minute changes of heart and gain additional votes. I remember staring at the candidates, and feeling sad because they all looked so eager, yet nervous, and I knew that not all would elected. (I was evidently a sensitive soul.)

Whilst I have aged, and adopted a more cynical world-view over the years since, I still do think that to be the local election officer is a important job. When I was in secondary school, following both the Assembly and Westminster elections, I tried researching the possibility of volunteering to count votes! Also over the years, I realised how fortunate I am to have the right to vote, and thus how important it is to utilise my right to vote. Moreover, as my interest in politics grew over time, I began to realise how intriguing it is, and how politics shapes our society. Consequently, I am fascinated by policy and decision-making.

Election time in Northern Ireland is a curious affair in comparison to the other devolved legislatures (which incidentally enough, also head to the polls on the 5th May, as I will discuss in a later blog post). This seemingly stems from the practice of politics here in general, along with the roles historical context and differing narratives play. Politics here is not as straightforward as the other UK regions. It runs deep; it can be the bedrock of communities, and will often be hotly debated in bars and cafés and buses. I often feel as though we are born with an instinctive understanding of tribal politics in Northern Ireland. Some of my earliest memories include coming to the realisation that you could distinguish one community from another by looking out for the particular flag being flown from a lamppost, or what colour the kerbstones were painted.

I mentioned previously the timeless practice of tribal politics – given the tumultuous history of The Troubles, Northern Ireland politics has roots in a ‘us versus them’ mentality. The general rule of thumb for generations was simple: if you were Catholic, you voted for a Nationalist party, such as the SDLP, or Sinn Féin; if you were Protestant, you voted Unionist for the Ulster Unionist Party, or the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). You either supported Northern Ireland remaining within the UK, or you desired to see a unified Ireland. You sympathised, perhaps even supported the use of violence – the armed struggle – by paramilitaries, or you simply wished to see stability in government and society. Regardless, community divide was evident, with each side wary of the other. Now, the Good Friday Agreement, the Peace Process and the passage of time have assisted in overcoming this divide, and bringing communities closer. But the ancient fear and dislike which can be triggered by the ‘us versus them’ mentality is still lingering. And this tends to be capitalised upon by political parties during election season.

For example, the message of the DUP in relation to the roles of First Minister, and Deputy First Minister during the campaign relies on tapping into the old Unionist fear of Republicanism. Arlene Foster, the leader of the party and who occupies the post of First Minister, has opted to argue that there is a fear Sinn Féin could become the largest party at Stormont, and thus have Martin McGuinness nominated for First Minister. The party therefore is asking the electorate to consider both Ms Foster and Mr McGuinness, and to ask themselves who they would prefer to see in the position of First Minister.

Historically, Unionist parties have always been the largest party, and have always occupied the post of First Minister. The second largest party, traditionally a Nationalist one, will have their leader nominated for the post of Deputy First Minister. Whilst there is no legal difference between the two posts in terms of powers and responsibilities, there is symbolism at play. And what you need to understand is that in Northern Ireland, symbolism is extremely important. To have the first Nationalist First Minister would symbolise the end of dominant Unionist – and generally Protestant – rule in Northern Ireland. Unionists are thus being encouraged to fear their identity would be under attack should this be the case – note that Northern Ireland was established through the deliberate selection of Northern Irish counties which had a Protestant majority. Given that Martin McGuinness has called for a referendum to be held on Irish unification in the aftermath of this summer’s EU referendum, you can see how the DUP could be concerned about the future of Northern Ireland. This concern has been present for a while, and may not necessarily be ill-founded as past Assembly elections illustrate that Sinn Féin are slowly but surely gaining votes overall. The irony is that for all the calls to arms issued by the DUP against Sinn Féin, the Executive works on the basis of power-sharing. Depending on their proportion of received votes, multiple political parties may receive a Ministerial portfolio. In recent years, the DUP and Sinn Féin have held the majority of portfolios between them, due to being the largest Unionist and Nationalist parties respectively.

However, staunch tribal politics is not as strong as it used to be. You see, the generational gap is growing, and young people are utterly exasperated at the status quo. Young people feel that Stormont is trapped in stalemate politics, lacking in functionality and efficiency. We feel alienated by the ‘us and them’ discourse, and feel that Northern Ireland is preoccupied with the past to the detriment of the future. We desire change, desire to see Northern Ireland become the country it has such potential to be. We are worried about employment opportunities, and the threat of increased tuition fees. Moreover, we are not impressed with the politicisation of every issue and every Department within the Executive. The young generation will have its say come the 5th May, and throw into the mix the periphery parties, including The Greens, and we have a different ballgame entirely.

It should be noted too that Members of the Assembly (MLAs) are elected according to a system of proportional representation called Single Transferable Vote, or STV. Under STV, candidates are elected according to the share of vote they receive, the size of the electorate, and the number of seats to be filled. Voters may rank candidates in order of preference, giving each a number, and they can choose as many or as few as they like. For each constituency a ‘quota’ must be determined which establishes the minimum number of votes a candidate requires to be elected. This means that each constituency tends to see a variety of candidates elected to post, and thus ensures a more representative and reflective Assembly. It also means that parties will carefully scrutinise each constituency to calculate their chances, and will seek to utilise preference votes. This is not a simple case of first past the post like the Westminster elections, oh no. This is more complex, more intriguing, and has sometimes resulted in House of Cards-esque actions to ensure victory. For example, everyone knows at least one story regarding a Lazarus, whereby people seemingly rise from the dead to vote. This year, we have accusations from the ex-DUP party member Ruth Patterson, who argued that the use of rival DUP candidate Emma Pengelly’s maiden name on posters so they read ‘Emma Little Pengelly’ was deliberately done to ensure her name is bigger, and easier to see. It is worth noting there is no love lost on behalf of Ms Patterson: she was expelled from the DUP after using media to air her complaints over Ms Pengelly’s co-opting into the South Belfast seat vacated by previous occupant Jimmy Spratt.

Nominations for the NI Assembly elections closed on Tuesday 12th April, with 276 candidates contesting 108 seats. The most competitive, and therefore battleground areas are North Belfast, East Belfast, South Belfast, and West Tyrone with each having 18 candidates contesting six seats. On the other side of the spectrum, the least competitive constituencies are Mid Ulster, South Down and West Belfast, with each having 12 candidates contesting six seats. My own constituency is South Antrim, traditionally a Unionist stronghold with a minority Nationalist presence.

From now until the 5th May, campaigning shall truly be underway in Northern Ireland. It remains to be seen whether change really will come about; something which our politicians have not achieved despite the infamous Haass talks and the equally-infamous Fresh Start Agreement. There is the potential for interesting upsets in certain constituencies, which could result in a change in the political landscape at Stormont. As for myself, I will be keeping an eye on the general campaign, and will relish the chance to finally place my faith in my chosen candidates, and submit my ballot slip. I am a strong proponent of devolution: Northern Ireland did not endure years of violence and instability to ever return to the days of Direct Rule. So for all that I may complain about Stormont’s performance in the past mandate, or even during the mandate yet to come, I will always feel some measure of pride that we have the Assembly and Executive, and it was the people of Northern Ireland who elected the MLAs.