In November 2003, elections were held for Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly at Stormont. The Northern Ireland Assembly had been suspended by Northern Ireland Minister Paul Murphy following allegations that Sinn Fein had bugged offices at Stormont.

The November elections used proportional representation (pr). The result gives some idea as to why people fear the introduction of pr for Britain’s national elections.

Northern Ireland has a unique history in British politics. It has used pr for decades – a consequence of the problems in the province over the years since the “Troubles”. Proportional representation was introduced in order to get a fairer representation of Catholics onto local councils etc. Therefore, the use of pr, though a novelty in Wales and Scotland when it was first used for the devolutionary elections, has been used on many occasions in Northern Ireland and is seen to be part of the political furniture.

Historically, Northern Ireland has seen two major moderate parties and two major ‘extreme’ parties.

Protestants: the Protestants have tended to be represented by the moderate UUP (Ulster Unionist Party) currently led by David Trimble. This party has engaged in dialogue with Sinn Fein and is seen as a moderating influence on the Protestant community in the province. Trimble’s position as head of the UUP was confirmed in March 2004.

Historically, in recent years, the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) has played second fiddle to the UUP. The DUP is a hard-line Protestant party that believes that Sinn Fein is a political front for the IRA and its leader, Ian Paisley, has stated time and again that he would have no dialogue with Sinn Fein. 

Catholics: The moderate Catholic party has been the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party). The party seen as ‘extreme’ is Sinn Fein. The latter has never denied being the political voice of the IRA and its mere connection with the IRA is enough for many Unionist to condemn it.

Historically, the SDLP has done well in provincial elections and Sinn Fein has played second fiddle to it.

The 2003 result using proportional representation make for interesting reading:

  % votes 2003 Number of seats + or – 1998*
DUP 25.6 30 + 7.5%
UUP 22.6 27 – 1
SDLP 17 18 – 6
SF 24 24 + 6
Other Unionist 2.5 2 – 3
Alliance 3.6 4 0
Others 4.7 1 – 2

* = Last Assembly election

The two parties considered to be moderate have lost out. The two ‘extreme’ parties have clearly won.

This is the perceived problem:

Using proportional representation, the people of Northern Ireland will have an assembly (should it ever sit as the DUP have already refused to sit with Sinn Fein) that represents their beliefs in a far more representative way than FPTP . But it has also allowed into a more powerful position two extreme political parties in Northern Ireland and a political stand-off may occur with the DUP refusing to have any part in an assembly that allows in “reprobates” (Paisley). However, the DUP wants devolved power for Northern Ireland again, and has publically stated this – so will it be forced by its own rhetoric to sit down with Sinn Fein? A devolved assembly will only work with an input from the 2 biggest parties – without it, Stormont will be suspended again, if it ever gets off the ground at all.

Compared to their position in the 2001 national election, the DUP gained 4% more of the votes cast in November 2003. The more moderate UUP dropped by 4%. The two main Catholic parties (SDLP and Sinn Fein) held their support. Does this mean that Unionist support in Northern Ireland is getting more hard line? What might this mean for the Good Friday Agreement?

  % vote 2001* % vote 2003**
DUP 22 26
UUP 27 23
SDLP 17 17
SF 23.5 24
Other Unionist 2.6 2
Alliance 3.7 4
Others 4.2 4

* = using FPTP
** = using Proportional Representation

Though Sinn Fein beat the SDLP in 2001, their winning MP’s did not take a seat in the House of Commons as they refused to swear allegiance to the Crown as all new MP’s have to. That, by itself, was enough to irk the DUP. However, Sinn Fein was willing to develop the Good Friday Agreement whereas the DUP want to scupper it in its entirety.

Will a new assembly start in Stormont? Without the largest Protestant party, that would seem unlikely, as any decision that was taken by an assembly that lacked the DUP would be devoid credibility in the eyes of the Protestant community in Northern Ireland.