After Northern Ireland goes to the polls on May 5th the executive will have a new structure, while proposals to reduce the number of MLA’s from 108 to 90 are still being debated.
Prior to the 2016 election, the Northern Ireland Executive was comprised of 12 departments. This includes the office of the First and Deputy First minister and a cabinet/committee of 11 ministers. Each minister runs a different department i.e. Health, Justice, Education, etc. However after the Stormont House Agreement was signed, it was decided that the current departments should be streamlined.
During the Stormont House meetings, it was suggested that the number of executive departments be reduced from 12 to 9. The office of the First and Deputy First Minister will now also be kNown simply, as the Executive Office. Some departments will remain while others will be amalgamated to in a way reduce the bureaucracy involved in running the executive. Speaking in 2015, when delivering the names of the new departments, then First Minister Peter Robinson said that “there would undoubtedly be greater efficiency”.
Arguably the most prominent issue of the Stormont House Agreement was that of finance and welfare. Given austerity policies and welfare cuts, removing three ministers from the payroll would be considered no bad thing. However, that may not be the end of the reductions, as there are continued calls to reduce the number of Assembly members, earlier than the given deadline of 2021. This deadline was assured by the ‘fresh start’ document; a result of the Stormont Agreement.
One of the most prominent supporters of this proposal is the Alliance Party. Alliance candidate for East Londonderry, Yvonne Boyle reiterated the Parity’s wish to see the numbers of MLA’s reduced. Her and her party actually wanted to see the reduction in MLA’s happen in the upcoming election, not after 2016. “Reducing the number of MLA’s from 108 to 90 could save [the taxpayer] £2.2million every year” she said “Over the next five years that could represent a saving of £11 million”. No small sum, when finance and welfare are such important issues
It may seem odd that the Alliance party are so keen on the reduction. Being a smaller party in terms of seats, reducing the number of seats per constituency may actually harm their chances in future elections. In an assembly debate in 2015, East Antrim MLA Stewart Dickson argued that to reduce the number of MLAs required only a simple piece of legislation. He said that “the principle that the Assembly is too large and needs to be reduced in size has been accepted and is won.” As for waiting until 2021 he said “why not now?”
Mr. Stewart did mention the potential risk to the Alliance party in such a reduction, but argued that “it was the right thing to do”. During the same debate though, DUP MLA Peter Weir claimed that the Alliance were simply attempting to take a “moral high ground” and that the Alliance was merely attempting to quickly usher in changes, which would benefit their party. While supporting the proposal to lower the number of MLAs in 2021, Mr. Weir warned against any further reduction of MLAs saying that would be a “dreadful attack on democracy” Mr Weir claimed that the Alliance were “grandstanding” on issues which would actually improve its electoral performance.
“Why not now?” is an interesting point however. The Assembly has had to focus its efforts on saving money, and operating with a reduction in welfare. Yet Northern Ireland is clearly over-governed. As of the last census, the population of Northern Ireland is approximately 1,800,000. That equates to each MLA representing approximately 16,700 people. Comparing that with other governing bodies around the UK; Scotland have approximately one MSP per 40,300 people and Wales have roughly one Assembly member per 51,000. If we were to apply those ratios respectively to Northern Ireland, Stormont would only have 44 or 35 MLAs. Considering the number of local councillors and the 18 MP’s in the province, total public official salaries in Northern Ireland are disproportionally high. A non-ministerial MLA can cost £127,000 a year to sustain (including salary, expenses, office costs, etc.) Yvonne Boyle and the Alliance may have a point.
Unfortunately, this is now unlikely to happen any time soon. The 2016 election is around the corner, so it looks set to be 2021 before there is any change in the number of MLAs. The early fragility of the institution since the Good Friday Agreement may be one reason why there has been a reluctance to change the makeup of Northern Ireland’s local government. However, it has been almost 20 years since David Trimble, Seamus Mallon and that first group of MLAs sat at Stormont. It may be now time to bring about some more structural changes. The decision to condense the Northern Ireland Executive has shown there is a capability to do it, while several MLAs have shown a desire to do it.
One heartening prospect can be inferred though. Perhaps now there is sufficient stability at Stormont to survive a ‘shake-up’. Even if it is a slow ‘shake-up’.