Northern Ireland assembly-size and magnitude change

A political agreement in late December in Northern Ireland includes a provision:

to cut the number of Assembly members from 108 to 90 and Executive departments from 12 to 9 and to allow for the formation of an opposition with effective speaking rights. In theory the creation of an opposition raises the possibility of a future alternative coalition. (Brian Walker, The Constitution Unit, 13 January)

Although Walker, in the cited piece, does not say so, it would seem this means district magnitude (M) will be reduced from six to five. There are currently 18 electoral districts, each electing six assembly members. Given a reduction of assembly size by 18, I will assume this means each district loses a seat.

The impact would be to make Northern Ireland’s elections somewhat less proportional, which is a goal consistent with Walker’s statement about the possibility of a future alternative coalition. That is, the political reforms, as a package, could be seen as representing a small step away from consociationalism (power-sharing) in the direction of majoritarianism (with its more defined government-opposition divide).

Based on the 2011 election results, one might surmise that the lone Green and TUV members, as well as the one independent, would be unlikely to retain their seats. The UUP would be unlikely to win two seats in Strangford on barely a fifth of the vote, as it did in the six-seat district, and might have trouble holdings its one seat in districts such as Belfast East, West Tyrone and Mid-Ulster. Sinn Fein likely would struggle to retain its seats in East Antrim (8.4% of vote) and Belfast South (12.5%). These are just examples of some potential losses, but one can’t be sure given that obviously the votes will not break down in the next election the same way as they did in the last, and I have not considered the distribution of preference flows (Northern Ireland uses STV). The general point is simply that larger parties, in any given district, should be somewhat favored by a reduction of district magnitude, particularly the move from an even number of seats in each district to an odd number. And this would tend to support, at least marginally, a move towards two alternative governing options, when combined with other changes.