Monday 23 January 2017

The WhyNotSmile Guide To The Northern Ireland Assembly

First of all, apologies if you don't live in Northern Ireland, because you're not going to care about this in the slightest. However, over the past week, at least several people have asked me who they should vote for in the upcoming elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly, and it has become apparent that the reason for such a flurry of questioning is that most people (ie at least 2 of my acquaintances) don't actually know what the Northern Ireland Assembly is, or how it works.

Thankfully, WhyNotSmile is here, as ever, to help.

Secondly, i have no special insider information on any of this; I just read it on Wikipedia. So don't take it as Gospel.

1. What is the Northern Ireland Assembly?

The Northern Ireland Assembly (NIA) is a group of people who've been elected (of which, more presently) by the rest of us to keep things running. So they keep an eye on things like schools, hospitals and, apparently, heating systems. There are some things they're not allowed to meddle in, because it's important for Westminster to have something to do, so, for instance, they can't suddenly make us use funny currency, or declare war on the Isle of Man. There's a whole list of things that they can't do ever, and then there's a list of things that they can't do yet, but might be allowed to do in the future if they demonstrate that they wouldn't make a pig's ear of it, and then they're allowed to do everything else, unless they do something that no one's thought of yet but that it seems unwise for them to meddle in, in which case that thing might be added to one of the first 2 lists.

So, the Assembly has 108 members, called MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly). It has recently been decided that we could live without some of these MLAs (in general; not specific ones), so the number is being cut down. But we'll come back to that. They all have debates about what they think they should do, and then the DUP override it with the Petition of Concern (which we'll also come back to), and every now and then they all have a Proper Fight and the whole thing collapses for a while while they go to a fancy hotel and figure out what to do next. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because it means more Mark Devenport on my TV *swoon*.

Now, the things the Assembly is allowed to do are divided into Departments, like the Department of Education and the Department of Sports and Other Kinds of Fun (they keep changing these names; these are just examples). So, every department has to have someone in charge of it, and the people in charge of the departments are called the Executive. I shall explain later how they decide who gets to be in charge.

So the Executive are in charge of departments, and then they all have sub-committees (which I think are made up of some of the other MLAs, and maybe some Civil Servants and stuff; I dunno) to actually do stuff, and the Assembly debates what stuff they should do. Roughly.

2. How Does The Northern Ireland Assembly Work?

Now, before we start, it's important to establish that, when it comes to how the Northern Ireland Assembly "works", we need to somewhat broaden our definition of the word "works". In your average situation, when we say that something "works", we imply that it functions, in a reasonably consistent manner, in order to achieve something useful. In this case, though, that's expecting a bit much. The Northern Ireland Assembly "works" in the same way that my 2-year-old "helps" when I'm doing the vacuuming: energy is expended, noise is made, and a lot of praise is accepted at the end, but if we're being honest, the whole thing would proceed much more efficiently if he could be plonked in front of the TV and remain uninvolved. However, also like my 2-year-old, there are large swathes of Northern Irish society who are much better when kept where we can see them, and putting them in the Assembly is (marginally) cheaper than putting them in prison (there being, of course, an uncommon proportion of our Elected Representatives who have tried both).

So, what happens is this: we have elections. Northern Ireland is split into 18 constituencies (soon to be cut to 17, though I'm unclear who we're ditching). A constituency is an area, like, East Belfast (yeo), Fermanagh and South Tyrone, or South Down. Each constituency has, until now, been allowed to choose 6 MLAs, but this is being cut to 5, to save money or something. So this will give us 85 MLAs instead of 108. Each party can choose some candidates to stand for election in each area, and random individuals can put themselves forward too. Then they all spend a fortune putting posters up all over the place, because it is well known that people often think "Oh, I was going to vote for Candidate X with all those great policies they're putting forward, but now that I've seen an actual photo of Candidate Y I will vote for him instead". I suppose that's what happens when you have candidates who look as responsible, efficient and majestic as Jim Allister and Edwin Poots.

Then we all vote, or at least 12% of us vote (in some cases, several times each), and the winners are announced. Now, it is worth considering the method of voting which is used, because this is one of the key bits that no one seems to understand. The Assembly Elections use a system called the Single Transferrable Vote. I plan to explain this in more detail in a future post, but for now it can be summarised thus: you vote by putting numbers instead of an X. So you can vote for lots of people, in order of preference, and if your first choice doesn't get in, then your second choice counts instead.

This is important in Northern Ireland, where vast numbers of people base their view almost entirely on who they don't want to win. Traditionally, one would spot a new, forward-thinking, progressive party, and one would think "I would like to vote for them, but then that's one less vote for Us Lot, so it's basically a vote for Them Lot, so I shall not vote for this new, forward-thinking, progressive party, but instead I shall vote for Us Lot, just to be safe". Under the Single Transferrable Vote system, one can take a punt, as it were, on smaller parties (I don't mean literally take a punt, before someone tries to sail up the Lagan on Naomi Long), and then put the big parties towards the end, so that if the smaller party candidate doesn't win, then your vote gets passed on to the Us Lot party of your choice.

Then someone, somewhere, does some complicated maths, and figures out which 5 people have won in each area. Those 5 people become MLAs.

Next, we have to form the Executive. Now, there are 3 "groups" of parties in Northern Ireland. There's "Them", there's "Us" and there's the "Wishy Washies" (each MLA declares which group they're in). The biggest party in the group with the biggest number of MLAs gets to nominate the First Minister. This is considered Brilliant, although it's never been entirely clear to me what the First Minister does. Having said that, I'm not sure what the Prime Minister does either, but I'm fairly sure it's broadly similar. The biggest party in the group with the second biggest number of MLAs gets to nominate the Deputy First Minister, who does roughly the same as the First Minister.

Then we need to put someone in charge of each department. I'm not entirely clear how this works. First, I think each party has to decide whether it wants to be in the Executive (so a party could, in theory, get loads more votes than everyone else, but decide they don't want any actual responsibility, and therefore not go into the Executive; this puts them in Opposition). Then, of all the ones that want to play, they get allowed to choose some Departments, in proportion to how many MLAs they got.

So, let's say that there are 3 parties who have agreed to go into the Executive. Party A has 25 MLAs, Party B has 15 MLAs, and Party C has 10 MLAs. So 50 in all. Then, let's say there are 8 departments. Party A has half the MLAs, so they get 4 departments. Party B has 15/50 MLAs, so that's 3/10, which is about 1/4, so they get 2 departments. Then C get a fifth, so that's one department. Then there's another formula to figure out how to split up the spare department. I'm not sure how they decide who gets which department; maybe it's like picking teams in school, where you take it in turns to choose. I dunno.

What I DO know is that no one is allowed the Department of Justice unless they're one of the middle ground parties, because it's obvious to everyone that Us Lot and Them Lot wouldn't trust each other with a bucket of water, let alone actual justice. Probably with good reason, let's face it.

Now, the one aspect of all this that we haven't discussed is the Petition of Concern, which was designed to stop Them Lot ganging up on Us Lot, but seems to have morphed into a way of big parties stopping anyone else from doing anything at all that they don't like. The key here is that if a party can get 30 MLAs, they can use the Petition of Concern all over the place to stop anything they just don't like the look of. Other parties have proposed changing the PoC so that this can't happen, but obviously the proposal was blocked by the people who are Quite Happy with how things are, thank you very much.

There's also the Speaker, but I have literally no clue what they do; I think they're essentially a glorified referee, but don't quote me on that.

So, to summarise: you're voting for the people who'll run the place, and it's all designed to be very representative, so basically you should vote for whoever you want and not vote for whoever you don't want, and it'll all be more or less fine.

I trust this helps.