Back to the future

So, there is no actual deal for restoring devolved government in Northern Ireland, but there is an agreed choreography (see Guardian, BBC, and the actual agreement). Nothing very surprising, especially if you have been following the remarks of the key DUP and Sinn Fein players over the last few months. I did grin at Reg Empey’s comment that the St Andrews deal is the Good Friday Agreement for slow learners – this is, of course, a riff on Seamus Mallon’s line in 1998 that the Good Friday Agreement was Sunningdale for slow learners, Empey himself being one of the slow learners to whom Mallon was referring.

One aspect that is of considerable interest to me is the ambiguity of the third last step, from the timetable on page 14 of the Agreement:

March: Endorsement by the electorate of the St Andrews agreement.

Apparently the not unimportant question of whether this means new Assembly elections or a referendum was not resolved at St Andrews. And the option of elections actually has a certain ambiguity; the 18 old parliamentary constituencies, drawn up in 1995, are on the verge of being replaced by a new set, but it would be a pretty tight squeeze to force through the legislation changing the boundaries starting now (or rather, starting whenever the political decision is made to do it) in time for an election in early March. So I reckon that if there is to be an election, it will necessarily be on the existing boundaries.

I also think that a new Assembly election is more likely than a referendum. Holding a referendum on what is essentially minor tinkering to what should theoretically be entrenched constitutional legislation is a bit excessive. There is also room for tedious and potentially destructive debate on precisely what parts of the St Andrews package could or should be subjected to referendum, and what the wording of the question (or, I suppose, questions) should be. It’s different from 1998, when we had been told for years that the final package would be endorsed by referendum and it was accepted by all parties that this was part of the deal. Also, there will have to be a new Assembly election some time.

There is a possible argument that the current electoral boundaries are so out of date that any Assembly election on that basis would be pretty dubious. Actually I see this an opportunity here to put right one of the flaws in the Belfast Agreement. It rigidly assigned six Assembly seats to each of the 18 Westminster constituencies, a last-minute arrangement made to satisfy the Women’s Coalition, who aren’t around any more, and anyway I doubt that if they were they would seriously object to my proposal, to wit: that for a March Assembly election, the current (ie old) Westminster boundaries should be used but with the number of seats varied from five to seven. Here are the figures (crunched backwards from the Boundary Commission’s current proposals) showing the electorate for each of the current seats, and the divergence from the average, as of 1 December 2005:

East Belfast                55098	-14%
North Belfast               51209	-20%
South Belfast               52126	-18%
West Belfast                54205	-15%
East Antrim                 58794	 -8%
North Antrim                75332	 18%
South Antrim                63178	 -1%
North Down                  60108	 -6%
South Down                  74230	 16%
Fermanagh and South Tyrone  67411	  6%
Foyle                       68848	  8%
Lagan Valley                71952	 13%
East Londonderry            59109	 -7%
Mid Ulster                  63015	 -1%
Newry and Armagh            72876	 14%
Strangford                  67400	  6%
West Tyrone                 60186	 -6%
Upper Bann                  72564	 14%

Pretty clearly, you will get a more proportional allocation of seats if you take a seat off each of the four Belfast constituencies, and add an extra one to North Antrim, South Down, Upper Bann, Newry and Armagh, and perhaps also Lagan Valley – which would give you 109 Assembly members not 108, but is that such a big deal?

I don’t think this makes a huge difference on the ground. Probably the party it is least favourable for is my own, the Alliance Party, but there’s not really a lot in it. There is also a precedent: when the 1982 Assembly elections took place, once again the old boundaries drawn up just after the 1970 election were on their last legs, and so the number of seats per constituency then varied from four (in West Belfast) to ten (in South Antrim). My proposal for a variation from five to seven is rather modest in comparison!

One thought on “Back to the future

  1. I enjoy the first few chapters, set in the school and such, but I find that, despite reading the book twice, I can scarcely remember anything that happens after that point.

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