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
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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