When you mention reducing the number of MLAs, Stormont parties reach for their calculators.
In principle all the main parties favour reducing the size of government, some more than others, but there are practical concerns.
“Will I lose my job?” is the|obvious one and there are worries about the overall balance of power.
The broad picture is that the hold of the two bigger parties would increase but the smaller ones still stay on the Executive — if present voting trends continue.
Six MLAs are currently elected for each of our 18 Westminster constituencies, giving a total of 108.
We asked LucidTalk, our polling partners, to do a projection of the likely affects of cutting MLA numbers to 90 (five per constituency) and then to 72, (four per constituency).
The projections are based on election results since 2007 and polling since 2010.
Looking at the 90-member model, the findings suggest the UUP would be the heaviest loser, falling from 16 seats to 9.
Sinn Fein would lose three seats, the DUP and SDLP would each lose four and the Alliance would remain unchanged with eight seats.
The TUV would still hold its single seat while the Green Party, UKIP and David McClarty, the independent, could win two seats between them.
The DUP would keep the trophy position of First Minister.
All the current parties would retain seats in the Executive if the present 10 ministries were retained, but Alliance would be the first to drop out if the total fell to eight.
Eight ministries is the point at which Sinn Fein would also draw equal with DUP with each party gaining three ministerial portfolios.
The UUP is such a heavy loser because it is often hanging on for the last seat.
On the other hand Alliance wins most of its seats, which are concentrated in the doughnut of con
stituencies around Belfast, fairly comfortably.
The once mighty UUP could fare even worse.
If the downward trend of its vote accelerates, or if Alliance continues to rise at its expense, it could lose the single seat which keeps it ahead of Alliance in a reduced Assembly.
That single seat would knock it off the Executive, just as the loss of David McClarty reduced it from two ministries to one. Mike Nesbitt, the party leader, needs to guard against defections and to try to woo back Mr McClarty to ensure he holds his own if seats are cut.
Any potential loss of Basil McCrea (left), the high polling Lagan Valley MLA coveted by the Tories, would, for instance, be a disastrous blow in a seat where the UUP has hopes of a second MLA.
Reducing the number of MLAs to 72 doesn’t change the calculation much.
The main difference is that Alliance would lose its ministry if the Executive was reduced to eight and the UUP would hang on.
The same health warnings apply even more strongly.
Fluctuations in voting patterns, defections or the emergence of new candidates from parties like UKIP or the Tories could upset the calculations, probably impacting heavily on the UUP.
Projected party numbers if the Assembly dropped to|five-seater constituencies (90 members in total):
DUP: 34 (down 4)
SF: 26 (down 3)
SDLP: 10 (down 4)
UUP: 9 (down 7)
ALLIANCE: 8 (No change)
INDEPENDENTS (Green Party and UKIP included): 2 (down 1)
We’re still paying high cost of securing peace
By Liam Clarke
David McNarry believes the Assembly could operate effectively with just 50 MLAs — but no lower than 80 would ever be agreed, says the sole UKIP member.
Statistically we could take less than 50. Compared to Scotland, 36 would be the proportionate to our size.
However if a reduction is agreed — and both the DUP and Sinn Fein say they are working on it — 90 seems to be the most likely number to be agreed, more than twice the proportion per head of population in Scotland or Wales.
Our inflated system of government dates back to the days when the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated. Then the economy was buoyant, the alternative was continued violence and Tony Blair, who footed the bill, thought agreement was cheap at any price.
One imperative was creating enough seats so the PUP and the Ulster Political Research Group, who spoke for the UVF and UDA loyalist paramilitary groups, would be guaranteed places. It was also thought important that the Women’s Coalition should be represented.
Including these three parties, who all played important parts in negotiating the agreement, stretched the size of our institutions beyond anything that would be considered reasonable elsewhere. Now all three have disappeared from the Assembly but the extra seats, and all the trappings of power, still remain.
MLAs are practically tripping over each other and the scale of their back-up staff is huge.
When David McNarry defected from the UUP to UKIP, which wants a drastic cut in costs, he qualified for party allowances. He now has two people employed, at the Assembly’s expense, in his Stormont support office and three work in his constituency office paid for by his allowances. Not bad for what is effectively a one-man band.
Leaving aside office and constituency workers there is also provision for 19 Special Advisers (SPADs) in Stormont, eight in the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister and one in each of the other 11 ministries. Their salaries are not published but range between £60,000 and £80,000. By contrast Scotland, with three times our population, has only 12.
Of MLAs, McNarry said: “In the UUP and other Executive parties you could have got away with not being very productive. I used to have heated discussions with some of my colleagues because, as far as I was concerned, they were not putting the effort in.”
Perhaps it is time we moved beyond what Mark Durkan, the former SDLP leader, once referred to as “the ugly scaffolding” needed to sustain the peace process in its early days.