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10 June 1996

A Travesty of Democracy

It is said that everybody had some reason to feel happy about the results of the May 30th elections in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein got their largest ever share of the vote, Ian Paisley's DUP increased their share against the Ulster Unionist Party which nevertheless kept its place as the largest party in Northern Ireland. Smaller parties such as the Progressive Unionists and the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition also for the first time got seats in an elected assembly.

The only loser in this happy-go-lucky affair was democracy itself. From beginning to end the whole thing was a cynical stitch-up designed by the government in London to put a democratic gloss on the undemocratic peace process.

Elections in Northern Ireland were always a farce. There was never any doubt as to the outcome since the territory was specifically created to guarantee a Unionist majority. Since 1972, any semblance of democratic decision making for the people of Northern Ireland was removed with the introduction of Direct Rule from Whitehall. So democracy has never existed in Northern Ireland. But this election takes these anti-democratic traditions a step further by creating what is simply a parody of popular representation.

The only reason the election was held in the first place was to stymie the ambitions of one party - Sinn Fein. For 18 months following the IRA ceasefire of August 1994, the government has exploited the political collapse of its old opponent by throwing up numerous obstacles to Sinn Fein's fawning demand for entry into all-party talks. This election was the one which finally got the message across to Sinn Fein and the IRA that the government was only interested in a surrender. Shortly after the elections were announced the IRA called off its ceasefire.

When the plans for the election were first revealed, even seasoned commentators expressed disbelief at their complexity. However the complexity was a cover for the fact that the government was fixing the whole thing in order to get the result it wanted, which Sinn Fein's increased vote notwithstanding, it did. There were to be 110 seats in the proposed Forum of which 90 would be elected. The remaining 20 would be allocated to the top 10 parties. This device was straightforward vote-rigging. The government was simply making sure that the people they wanted at the all-party talks (who would be chosen from the Forum), would be there. A look at the results shows how the government was bound to win.

First of all it is worth noting in the results an important legacy of the gerrymandering which was always such a feature of elections in Northern Ireland. This can be summed up thus: Unionists get more seats for their votes. If we match the number of seats to the percentage of votes cast against what the four main parties actually got we find the following disparity: PARTY % of vote seats:votes actual seats disparity UUP 24.17 22 28 +6 DUP 18.80 17 22 +5 SDLP 21.37 19 19 0 Sinn Fein 15.47 14 15 +1
So even if it was a normal election we would have some suspicious oddities. However the 'top up' system whereby the remaining 20 seats are allocated to the top 10 parties makes the old gerrymanderers look like novices.

If there had only been 90 seats available then only six parties would have made it into the Forum - a body which by any standards was extremely large in relation to the size of the electorate. If the same proportions were to be applied in Britain, it would turn the House of Commons into a 4,453-member behemoth. Given its size, any party which could not win a single seat at the Forum under its own steam was a truly sorry affair. However by giving the top 10 parties an extra two seats each, four extra parties escaped electoral oblivion and raised their presence in the Forum from zero to two. The Progressive Unionist Party, the Ulster Democratic Party (both with links to the loyalist death squads), the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition and the Labour Party were all electoral failures. The Women's Coalition received a pathetic 1.03 per cent of the vote, while Labour received even less. By giving the top ten parties an extra two seats, the government effectively nullified the verdict of the electorate.

But it gets worse. For when we look at how the proportions elected to the Forum translate into those present at all-party talks, then we enter a realm where the last vestige of electoral representation disappears.

The Forum was designed solely to elect representatives for all-party talks. It has no legislative or executive power. It is a talking shop in the best Northern Ireland tradition. However when it comes to sending representatives forward to the talks, all semblance of proportionality is dropped. Each party will send two representatives. That means that the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, with their miserable one per cent will have the same presence at the talks as the Ulster Unionist Party with 24 per cent.

In fact the all-party talks, which is where the real action is supposed to be, will also be a talking shop. Anybody who thinks that some important decisions about the future of Ireland will be taken at these talks is living in a fantasy world. Like the election itself, all-party talks are little more than a way of humouring the electorate into thinking that they are making important decisions. Both the elections and the all-party talks
are an insult to the intelligence and to democracy.
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