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If Westminster cares about Northern Ireland then drop boundary plan

There is a strong case for electing province's MPs by proportional representation, says Alban Maginness

Published 14/09/2016

Tony Blair did not win most of the popular vote, despite having huge majorities
Tony Blair did not win most of the popular vote, despite having huge majorities
Margaret Thatcher did not win most of the popular vote, despite having huge majorities

In February 1974, the Prime Minister, Edward Heath, called a snap election. This was only two months after the creation of the power-sharing Executive agreed at Sunningdale. The Executive had scarcely an opportunity to bed itself down as a cross-community administration when the election was called.

The snap election gave Ian Paisley and Harry West an opportunity to galvanise anti-power-sharing unionists against the newly formed power-sharing Executive.

Paisley and his anti-power-sharing coalition triumphed, winning 11 out of the 12 Westminster seats and delivering a crippling psychological blow to the power-sharing Executive.

However, the reality was that the anti-power-sharing unionists actually won only 51% of the overall vote.

It was, therefore, a skewed and unrepresentative result, given the fact that there had been a UUP-SDLP majority elected to the Assembly only eight months previously, in June 1973, but under the much fairer and more representative PR voting system. There was a pro-power-sharing majority in the Assembly of 52 to 26 members.

At the present time, Westminster - quite rightly - seeks to reform itself and reduce its numbers from 650 down to 600 MPs. and that is a worthy objective.

Strangely, though, but perhaps not surprisingly, it has failed to address what surely is the elephant in the room: that is its grossly unfair and appallingly disproportionate electoral system.

Neither Tony Blair nor Margaret Thatcher - two of the most successful PMs in Britain's history - ever had a majority of the popular vote. Nonetheless, both of them enjoyed large majorities in parliament.

It is truly baffling that such a sophisticated modern democracy as Britain has such an unfair and unrepresentative electoral system.

But, be that as it may, it is the continued imposition of the first-past-the-post system on us here in Northern Ireland that is a problem and will be an even greater problem when the proposed new boundary changes come in to force here.

There has been for a very long time a strong case to make an exception in Northern Ireland and to have our MPs elected under proportional representation to ensure fairness and representativeness in our politics.

The first-past-the-post system actively encourages rabid sectarian voting, which squeezes out more moderate, non-sectarian, or cross-community, voting.

Every five years or so, it reignites sectarian feeling and passions and undermines whatever progress we have made politically.

Westminster elections, whether they be in North Belfast or Fermanagh and South Tyrone, become sectarian dog-fights, where the central objective is to score one over on the other community, rather than deal with real social, or economic, issues.

There is no reason why Northern Ireland could not be subdivided into four areas and our 17 MPs elected under PR for those new, multi-member constituencies.

If Westminster believes in assisting and helping to build our new democracy and moving away from sectarianism, then it should give PR to Northern Ireland and encourage new politics.

We are a unique case and the granting of PR should not in any way undermine Westminster's current choice to use the first-past-the-post system for Britain.

But systems of elections aside, Westminster has again - albeit unwittingly, through the reduction in parliamentary seats and the boundary changes for the new 17 seats - triggered a huge earthquake to the political geology of Northern Ireland.

This not only affects the number of MPs and the geopolitical make-up of those seats, but it also has a knock-on effect on the Assembly, reducing its membership, based on the new 17 seats, down to 85 in 2021.

The current number of Assembly members is 108.

This reduction is fewer than the 90 seats envisaged in the so-called Fresh Start agreement last year.

This will cause serious uncertainty and instability, as parties and politicians assess the future political map. Such uncertainty is bad for our young institutions.

While some reduction was agreed by most of the political parties, such an additional reduction was not anticipated.

This combined with the proposed reduction from six seats down to five seats per constituency will certainly give both Sinn Fein and the DUP a further strengthening of their grip on power and consolidate their baneful duopoly.

This means a further squeezing of the numbers for the Opposition parties and smaller, aspirant political groupings, such as People Before Profit and the Greens.

It will lead to an even greater domination by the DUP/Sinn Fein axis, which will be profoundly damaging.

Unfortunately, like Brexit, Westminster reform will have a negative impact on our politics.

But, hopefully, in this parliament totally dominated by the future with the European Union, this proposal can be quietly jettisoned.

After all, it only takes for half a dozen Tory MPs fearful about their electoral future to scupper this mischievous measure.

Belfast Telegraph

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