Scotland and NI move closer politically…

As predicted on these very pages beforehand, Scots went to the polls last week and rejected the most courageous manifesto on offer – that from the Scottish Labour Party.

The blow delivered to that party is quite possibly terminal, insofar as anything can be in politics.

Where once Labour dominated urban Scotland, leaving the SNP and Conservatives to fight exclusively over rural areas, the SNP has now taken over that urban role completely, winning every urban constituency seat except in Edinburgh both last year and this. The SNP did suffer rural reverses, as if vacating rural areas to take over the urban ones – thus where it once left urban Scotland to Labour, it is now ceding rural Scotland to the Conservatives.

This rural/urban divide was apparent in Northern Ireland too. In urban areas, social liberal stances were rewarded – with leftist parties scoring well while Unionists and SDLP shredded votes. However, rural areas were the reverse – there, the DUP did particularly well, as did SDLP social conservatives, but liberals (like John McCallister or most Alliance candidates) suffered. Turnout in more typically Nationalist rural areas was markedly comparatively low.

Pundits, usually from urban or suburban areas, often miss such subtleties. Of course Scotland is not divided fundamentally communally the way Northern Ireland is and it is markedly more socially liberal even in rural areas; but, in its lurch towards overtly constitutional politics and widening distinction between urban and rural, Scotland is becoming more like Northern Ireland than the other way around. That may prove to be unfortunate!


Mistake to make abortion a “wedge” issue

One of the prime issues of the recent Assembly election – although I am not sure it really affected the result – was abortion. The Greens and assorted leftist candidates took an absolute “pro-choice” stance (and specifically pro-extension of the law as applies in the UK); the DUP and SDLP took a resolute “pro-life” stance opposed to any change in the law (although the latter did suggest decriminalisation – an odd position for a “pro-life” party, as abortion is not decriminalised anywhere else).

Yet it was in fact an SDLP candidate, Claire Hanna, who perhaps gave the most honest response to the question, on BBC Talkback, by noting she was in a pro-life party but was “conflicted”.

It is an odd thing that when a politician openly admits to doubt, as any thinking person should, they immediately get savaged by absolutists on either side of the debate. This is known as making something a “wedge issue” – you have to be for or against; with us or against us (and woe betide you if you are against).

It is unhealthy.


Life does not consist of “wedge issues”. As I noted in a letter to the Irish News in March, the fact I have arrived at essentially “pro-choice” position (taking the definition from the audience at the same debate in which Claire Hanna declared herself “conflicted”) does not somehow make me “anti-life”. The very terminology is ludicrous.

The abortion debate is taking place primarily between religious zealots who delight in the ridiculous pretence that the issue is simple (“You are killing babies”) on one hand, and social liberal hardliners who demand specifically a piece of legislation very few of them have ever read on the other. Anyone falling in between – suggesting that perhaps a 14-year-old victim of incest and rape should not have to have the resulting child, or that perhaps a poorly drafted piece of legislation which ended up reliant on interpretation in the courts with unintended consequences is not the best thing to copy on such an emotive and complex issue – is instantly dismissed by both sides as a weasel belonging to the other.

The electoral penalty is borne by those who, perfectly reasonably, fall between two positions and allow for a degree of doubt. But it is worth noting that the political penalty is actually borne by advocates of change. By insisting that any change must be specifically the change they want and only the change they want, they actually cause a divide among those wanting some form of reform, making life a lot easier for those who do not (who by definition are already united by their commitment to opposing any change). In politics, united beats divided every time.

The practical penalty is borne, appallingly, by the women of Northern Ireland. The promotion specifically of the “’67 Act” as the only acceptable change renders any change impossible – because that change is not available based on the votes of the people last week, and is in any case opposed on perfectly rational grounds by most reformists who have actually read it.

There is no harm in being a passionate advocate of a cause – but the key is to be so in a way which delivers results for the victims of the status quo, not just in a way which makes you feel good (and maybe nicks a few votes on the margins) but achieves nothing practically. Thus far campaigners for reform of Northern Ireland’s disgracefully archaic abortion law have merely delivered confusion and if anything a worse position than existed when regulations were clearly in place. The definition of madness is to repeat the same thing and accept different results. It is time for a different approach.

Creating “wedge issues” never does justice to the complexity of any social issue and rarely helps advocates of change. The identifiable need is to bring people on the journey. That means that all of those who advocate reform must unite around moderate and achievable goals – otherwise we will enter the 2020s having still achieved nothing for the real victims of the status quo.

Austria real cause for alarm

Bist du schwarz oder rot?” (“Are you black or red”) was the first question I was asked upon arrival to stay with a family in the Vienna suburbs in 1993. I have never forgotten it. Now, it really matters. 

For all our parochial concerns about devolved elections and even “Brexit”, perhaps the most significant political event in our lives occurred yesterday, in the form of the resignation of the Chancellor (head of government) of Austria.

Post-War Austria developed a system of “pillarisation” known as “Proporz”, whereby almost everyone was identified politically as “black” (centre-right, a supporter of the People’s Party) or “red” (centre-left, a supporter of the Social Democrats). Those two parties dominated elections, after which they almost invariably formed a Grand Coalition and dished out initiatives, ministries and even appointments in everything from the civil service to banks in proportion to size. (Indeed it was believed that even foreigners fell into one or the other, hence the question above.)

As the generations passed and memories of post-War occupation receded, younger people began to turn away from the two great monoliths and the allocations of appointments associated with them (one man’s “fair apportionment of appointments” is another man’s “corruption”), and parties such as the Liberals and Greens saw their chance. Unfortunately, the party which best grasped the opportunity was the Freedom Party, nominally liberal but really populist-conservative, led by the late Jörg Haider. He developed his own political base in the south of the country and rose from there to come second in the 2000 elections, thus securing a place in government. As Austria is associated in most outsiders’ minds with another right-wing leader of a not dissimilar name, foreign governments were appalled but there was little they could do.

Herr Haider was killed in a single-car crash, and so it was thought his movement would decline. This was another lesson of history not learned. Renewed and reunited, it won the first round of the presidential election last month ahead of an Independent Green, with the two great monoliths placed fourth and fifth behind another centrist independent.

Inevitably, below all this, there is a strong cultural and historical imperative. Austrians celebrate the fact, for example, that Ottoman Muslims made it as far as Vienna in the mid 17th century but no further; thus, the underlying notion that it is a Christian country is strong. There is also, among large sections of the population, an acute sense of loss; Vienna is the capital of a country of only 9 million, but any visitor can see it is obviously designed and built to be an imperial capital (as it was for centuries). Austria also never underwent the process of “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” taken on in neighbouring (West) Germany after the War.

Why does this matter to us? By some measures, Austria is the most prosperous country in the EU except tiny Luxembourg. If its democracy is collapsing into crazed anti-immigration populism, no democracy is secure from it. It is also a significant warning to those who believe that collapse of the established political order is necessarily a good thing – in fact, if it is not properly managed and planned (as inevitably it isn’t), it is invariably a recipe for chaos.

For us in Northern Ireland, the post-Agreement generation is finding not that our politics is becoming more like everyone else’s, but that everyone else’s is becoming more like ours. In response to ever more complex issues (such as the refugee crisis), the population is turning for comfort to people offering ever more simplistic answers.

This is a bad time to be a liberal democrat.

#AE16 – What we’re about to find out

I made my call in the various constituencies known in my previous post just as polls closed. I made it with no expectation of being proved right!

There are a few things which I am fairly certain will soon become apparent, however.

Firstly, the Northern Ireland electorate is innately conservative, in almost every sense. Even though I expect the “Big Two” will have made losses and some minor parties the odd breakthrough, dramatic change of the type we saw in Scotland five years ago is not on the cards. The truth is that, for all our complaining, actually a lot of people in Northern Ireland are quite comfortably off and in no hurry to try any sort of revolution which may make this cease to be the case.

Secondly, young people are nothing like as turned off politics as is assumed, but they are somewhat wary of party politics. They prefer issues – hence the perception in some quarters that this election has been more about policy than before.

Thirdly, this election has not been about policy. At all. Emotion, identity and personalities are what elections are about these days. Everywhere.

Fourthly, the voluntary sector is becoming a hindrance to good politics. Its demands are too specific to particular groups, and thus in fact enhance the very “silo mentality” which stops good strategic government happening in Northern Ireland.

Fifthly, the quality of media broadcasting in Northern Ireland is extraordinarily high, but the same cannot be said of analysis. Too often this consists of random commentary (often itself from a silo) rather than informed analysis from people who know how elections are actually carried out. We are also about, yet again, to see how confused the media get by the electoral system.

Sixthly, hard-line Unionists and Leftists are just ridiculously divided, fighting over small proportions of votes in small areas of constituencies which even collectively would not see them elected. They need to learn the value of compromise. But they won’t.

Seventhly, local Conservatives and Labour representatives will get a handful of votes and no seats, despite in the former case having run an excellent campaign on the doors and in the latter case having raised media profile significantly. They will continue to blame their HQs for the lack of support rather than recognise that the Northern Ireland electorate simply has no interest in their offering (because Northern Ireland is not the English Midlands).

Eighthly, Northern Ireland politics remains primarily divided along sectarian lines for the simple reason that the electorate is divided along sectarian lines. Those successful under this system have no interest in changing it, either socially or politically.

Finally, incumbents have a ludicrous advantage in Northern Ireland to the extent that it is a serious threat to proper representative democracy. They continue to have staff readily available during election campaigns having already built up an electoral profile with hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money. Challengers – who have to raise their profile voluntarily at great risk while working full time at something else – thus have a grossly unfair mountain to climb just to get to the starting line.

There are some serious challenges here to the quality of our democracy which are about to be clearly demonstrated. But change, sadly, will remain slow while the vested interests in the status quo are not taken on properly.


#AE16 Predictions

I learned last year never to try to predict an election. As one newspaper put it after everyone missed the outcome of the 1992 UK General Election, if votes were cast by electrons we could predict them; but as they are cast by electors, we cannot.

For the sake of a laugh, let us have a go as polls close. My instinct is that the DUP and SDLP have had the biggest challenge getting their vote out, but of course even that could be wrong (I was on the doors but was not asking on their behalf).

Even with that, predicting the final seat is almost impossible even once first counts are known! So take this all with a lashing of salt!

So, here we go:

  • Antrim, East: DUP 3, UU 1, AP 1, UKIP 1 (UKIP gain from SF; last seat UKIP from AP/SF)
  • Antrim, North: DUP 3, TUV 1, SF 1, UU 1 (No change; last seat DUP from UU)
  • Antrim, South: DUP 2, UU 2, SF 1, AP 1 (UU gain from DUP; last seat UU from DUP)
  • Belfast East: DUP 3, AP 2, UU 1 (No change; last seat DUP from UU)
  • Belfast North: DUP 3, SF 2, SDLP 1 (No change; last seats SDLP from AP and DUP from UU)
  • Belfast South: AP 2, DUP 1, SDLP 1, SF 1, UU 1 (AP gain from SDLP; last seat AP from SDLP/DUP/Green)
  • Belfast West: SF 4, PBP 1, DUP 1 (PBP, DUP gain from SF, SDLP; last seat SF from SDLP)
  • Down, North: DUP 3, UU 1, AP 1, Green 1 (No change; last seat DUP from UU)
  • Down, South: SDLP 2, SF 2, UU 1, Ind 1 (Ind gain from DUP; last seat Ind from DUP)
  • Fermanagh/South Tyrone: SF 2, DUP 2, UU 1, SDLP 1 (SDLP gain from SF; last seat SDLP from SF)
  • Foyle: SDLP 2, SF 2, DUP 1, PBP 1 (PBP gain from SDLP; last seat PBP from SDLP)
  • Lagan Valley: DUP 4, UU 1, AP 1 (No change; last seat DUP from UU)
  • Londonderry, East: DUP 2, UU 1, SF 1, SDLP 1, Ind 1 (UU gain from DUP; last seats Ind from DUP/TUV and SDLP from SF)
  • Mid Ulster: SF 3, SDLP 1, UU 1, DUP 1 (No change; last seat SF from SDLP)
  • Newry/Armagh: SF 3, SDLP 1, UU 1, DUP 1 (No change; last seat DUP from UU)
  • Strangford: DUP 3, UU 2, AP 1 (No change; last seat DUP from SDLP)
  • Tyrone, West: SF 3, DUP 1, UU 1, SDLP 1 (No change; last seat SDLP from Ind)
  • Upper Bann: DUP 2, UU 2, SF 2 (SF gain from SDLP; last seat SF from SDLP)

That would give us DUP 36, SF 27, UU 18, SDLP 11, AP 9, Other U 4, Other P 3 (Unionist 58, Nationalist 38, Progressive 12).

But, as can be seen from the proposed “last seat” contests, the actual result could be dramatically different if one or other party gets very lucky or unlucky (I suspect, for example, that the balance of probability is the DUP will do worse than 36 but the SDLP will do rather better than 11).

We’ll soon find out…

Assembly Election History – 2011

The election of exactly five years ago was very much as “as you were” election, with very few seats changing hands and the DUP and Sinn Fein given a clear renewed mandate with two thirds of Assembly seats between them. A calamity in Ulster Unionist selection also handed the Alliance Party its first Executive seat “as of right”.

Within Unionism, which picked up one seat overall, the story was subtle and on the margins. The DUP’s growth (based on an aggressive campaign to secure the First Minister’s position for Unionism) continued at the expense of the Ulster Unionists in the half of constituencies in and around Belfast, but in fact it lost votes to other Unionists in rural and border areas. Although neither Dawn Purvis nor her successor as PUP candidate could hold on to a seat, the Ulster Unionists threw away a seat to their former incumbent David McClarty (running as an Independent) in East Londonderry, and Jim Allister edged home for the TUV’s first ever seat in neighbouring North Antrim.

On the Nationalist side, the Unionist story was mirrored – Sinn Fein continued to grow away from Belfast and the suburbs but lost some ground inside them (though ultimately not, in fact, to other Nationalists). The SDLP’s decline was not halted by Margaret Ritchie, the new Leader (and first female Leader of an Executive party). Nationalists actually lost a seat despite supposedly favourable demographics – a trend which began to speed up in subsequent elections.

The Alliance Party was disappointed not to pick up more than one seat after its Westminster breakthrough the previous year, but did emerge as the third largest party in the nine Greater Belfast constituencies in terms of vote share and took the last Ministry from the Ulster Unionists. Despite a difficult election for other parties, the Greens (now with a single Leader, Steven Agnew) held on to their only seat in North Down.

2011 Greater Belfast Rural/








DUP 37.8% 24.0% 30.0% 38 4
SF 16.7% 34.8% 26.9% 29 3
UU 13.4% 13.1% 13.2% 16 1
SDLP 9.3% 18.0% 14.2% 14 1
AP 14.0% 2.8% 7.7% 8 1
OthU 5.1% 4.6% 4.8% 2 0
Oth 3.6% 2.7% 3.1% 1 0

Assembly Electon History – 2007

The election of 7 March 2007 took place in somewhat different circumstances from the previous one, following on from the deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Seeking a mandate for that deal, the DUP and Sinn Fein were very successful, securing the top two spots by a distance.

On the Unionist side, the Ulster Unionists (now led by Sir Reg Empey) were the big losers – seeing a third of their first preference vote share and seats disappear. The DUP was the main beneficiary, as other Unionists were reduced to a single seat (Dawn Purvis). Unionism in general lost seats, however – 55 was a bare majority.

On the Nationalist side, Sinn Fein’s gains were not quite so stark but created clear distance between it and the SDLP. Despite Nationalism’s haul of 44 seats collectively, the latter was reduced to just one Executive seat (having been the largest party in terms of vote share under a decade previously).

There was a notable rise in support for “other” parties, with the Greens picking up their first Assembly seat and independent Kieran Deeny holding on. The Alliance Party also picked up an extra seat – notable, because in Anna Lo, it provided the first ever ethnic Chinese legislator in British or Irish electoral history.

2007 Greater Belfast Rural/








DUP 36.0% 25.5% 30.1% 36 4
SF 17.2% 33.0% 26.2% 28 3
UU 17.0% 13.3% 14.9% 18 2
SDLP 10.0% 19.2% 15.2% 16 1
AP 10.2% 1.4% 5.2% 7 0
Oth 5.8% 4.9% 5.3% 2 0
OthU 3.7% 2.6% 2.1% 1 0

Assembly Election History – 2003

Even by Northern Ireland standards, the second Assembly Election, taking place in the dark and cold on Wednesday 26 November 2003, was bizarre – electing as it did a legislature which never actually sat as one.

The story was the emergence of the DUP as the largest party (led by Ian Paisley but in practice at Stormont by his deputy Peter Robinson), and of Sinn Féin as the largest Nationalist grouping at Stormont. This was expected, although the Ulster Unionists polled marginally better than predicted – their biggest problem came soon after the election, when three of their MLAs including Jeffrey Donaldson (who polled over 14,000 first preference votes on his own) defected to the DUP.

Within Unionism, the DUP overtook the Ulster Unionists primarily by sweeping up other Unionist seats and adding one to the Unionist total in Belfast West. The Ulster Unionists only lost one overall, but the DUP gained 10, leaving only two other Unionists (Robert McCartney and David Ervine) in the House. The Ulster Unionists actually remained the largest party in the Belfast Suburbs and narrowly outpolled the DUP in the Border area.

The SDLP was the only Executive party to change Leader between elections, to Finance Minister Mark Durkan. However, on the Nationalist side, positions were reversed exactly – the SDLP went from 24 down to 18 and Sinn Féin did precisely the opposite, generally outpolling its rival everywhere except the Belfast Suburbs.

There was also drama among the “Centre” bloc, with the Alliance Party (now led by David Ford after Seán Neeson’s brief tenure at the helm) suffering a near-death experience but clinging on to all six seats while the Women’s Coalition was wiped out – notably, given what was to come, Alliance newcomer Naomi Long only scrambled the last seat in East Belfast thanks to Mr Robinson’s determination to top the poll and consequent failure to split the DUP vote properly. However, the biggest story at the time within the bloc was the poll-topping performance of independent Health campaigner Dr Kieran Deeny in West Tyrone.

An oddity of the d’Hondt formula was that a relatively unchanged balance by designation saw Unionists pick up an Executive seat from Nationalists – not that it would ever matter.

2003 Greater Belfast Rural/








DUP 28.8% 23.3% 25.7% 30 3
UU 27.1% 19.2% 22.7% 27 3
SF 14.7% 30.5% 23.5% 24 2
SDLP 11.5% 21.3% 17.0% 18 2
AP 7.1% 1.0% 3.7% 6 0
OthU 1.0% 2.7% 3.6% 2 0
Oth 4.7% 3.2% 3.8% 1 0


Assembly Election History – 1998

The first election to the modern Northern Ireland Assembly took place on 25 June 1998, just over a month after the referendum on the Agreement.

The outcome was a disappointment for the pro-Agreement parties, particularly the Ulster Unionists (led by David Trimble, who became first First Minister) and Alliance (led by John Alderdice, who became first new Assembly Speaker).

Unionists in total won 58 of 108 seats, but no fewer than 10 of those went to candidates from outside the main two. Then North Down MP Robert McCartney’s originally fairly moderate but ultimately anti-Agreement “UK Unionists” were the biggest surprise, securing five. With fewer than half of Unionist seats, the complex Assembly arithmetic often required the two PUP MLAs to back Mr Trimble.

Nationalists won 42 seats. In fact, the SDLP (led by John Hume overall but by new Deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon at Stormont) scored the highest first-preference vote share, at 21.9%, and generally outpolled Sinn Fein everywhere except Belfast. (Sinn Féin had a similar split in leadership – overall the Party President was and is Gerry Adams, but Leader at Stormont was and is Martin McGuinness.)

Among the “neithers”, the Alliance Party had expected better than six seats, effectively losing two directly to the Women’s Coalition.

1998 Greater










UU 23.8% 19.1% 21.2% 28 3
SDLP 13.2% 29.2% 21.9% 24 3
DUP 18.2% 18.0% 18.1% 20 2
SF 11.8% 22.5% 17.6% 18 2
AP 11.1% 2.6% 6.5% 6 0
OthU 17.0% 5.4% 10.7% 10 0
Oth 5.1% 3.1% 4.0% 2 0

Errors in understanding “STV” voting system

It is unfortunate that no one took up my company’s offer of free training in the “Single Transferable Vote” system.

It is widely misunderstood even by political analysts, and hopelessly so by many journalists assigned to cover the results. Really, a bit of training is required to ensure the public is properly informed.

A few key points:

  • the “quota” is the number of votes required to guarantee a seat (the next whole number after a seventh of the valid vote, in the case of a six-seater);
  • a “transfer” is best used exclusively to describe the transfer of votes from an eliminated candidate (these transfer at full value to any next preference);
  • a “surplus” is best used exclusively to describe the number of votes by which a candidate has exceeded the quota (and thus the total of votes which will now be transferred to other candidates in proportion to next preferences given);
  • such a surplus is allocated only from the votes which took that candidate past quota (not from the votes already allocated to that candidate in any previous counts);
  • thus, a first-preference vote for a candidate who does not reach quota on the first count but is ultimately elected (or is last eliminated) counts entirely for that candidate alone;
  • candidates do not necessarily have to reach quota in order to be elected, and indeed many do not – those simply left not yet eliminated when the number of candidates left standing is equal to the number of seats to be filled are deemed elected; and
  • “topping the poll” is a total irrelevance and is in fact often a strategic error (the objective for parties running more than one candidate is in fact to balance that party’s vote evenly between them, to try to keep both in the race – as above – until all other candidates have been eliminated).

It is a complex system which is why I personally do not like it. But it is not that complex – just beware of “analysts” making predictions who do not understand it!


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