Tag Archives: politics

Reduction of MLAs at a Cost

Source: MB Architectural
Source: MB Architectural

After many years of conflict in Northern Ireland, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 ushered in a new era of peace to the province, and allowed for the devolution of government to the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont. Having voted via referendum, the majority of the electorate in Northern Ireland gave the agreement their approval. However, the system of government provided by the assembly is not without its faults or its criticisms. One such criticism is that the Northern Ireland assembly is over-governed. It is argued that there are simply too many MLAs for such a small population.

There are currently 108 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) in Stormont who represent a population of approximately 1.811 million people. This equates to there being approximately 1 MLA per 16,788 persons who live here. Comparatively there is around 1 Member of Parliament in Westminster for every 92,000 people in the whole of the UK. In Scotland’s devolved parliament at Holyrood, they have 129 elected MSPs, meaning that Scotland has just 21 more elected representatives than Northern Ireland for a population that is more than twice the size of Northern Ireland’s.

Source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Ireland_Assembly
Source: Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Ireland_Assembly

The debate around the reduction of MLAs isn’t exactly a new one. Political commentators, the general public, and politicians themselves have been having a seemingly endless discussion about the issue for a number of years. Having looked at the number representatives in Stormont in relation to the number of representatives in other UK parliaments, it would be difficult for any party to publicly denounce the reduction of MLAs. In recent years there has been increased pressure on the Northern Ireland Assembly to provide value for money. The parties at Stormont tend to be in agreement that there are too many elected representatives in the assembly, and yet despite many years of discussion, there has been little to no definite action taken to address the issue, until quite recently. Surprisingly it was the crisis talks that took place at Stormont in November, and the resulting “Fresh Start Agreement” that set the framework for the reduction of MLAs and assembly departments.

A section of the Stormont House Agreement, or “Fresh Start Agreement”, contains a proposal introduce a bill to reduce the number of government departments from 12 to 9, and to reduce the number of MLAs to 5 per constituency by 2021. The proposal would reduce the number of MLAs from 108 to 90. However, members of The Alliance Party have argued that changes should have been implemented before the May 2016 election, and brought forward an assembly motion to that effect last November. Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson who signed the proposal said, “Estimates are it would save the taxpayer around £2.2 million each year, or £11 million per Assembly term, in wages, expenses and office costs.”

The estimated savings that were suggested by Stewart Dickson are certainly attractive, especially in a time of public sector cuts and austerity. Nevertheless, other parties in the assembly voted against the motion to change the timing of the implementation. Following the vote, Alliance MLA for East Belfast Chris Lyttle slammed those who opposed the motion saying, “It is disappointing other parties decided to act in self-preservation and not follow Alliance’s lead to carry out much-needed reform, while still ensuring representation for smaller parties.” However, ensuring the representation of certain groups was one of the main reasons cited by some parties for not implementing the changes before the most recent elections.

During the debate Sinn Féin’s Pat Sheehan warned members of the dangers of comparing the Northern Ireland Assembly to its UK counterparts saying, “None of those institutions faces the same difficulties as we do here. None of them was established as a response to 30 years of conflict and the serious fault lines and divisions in society that we have here in the North”. He added, “In the Assembly, the question is whether a reduction in the number of MLAs would have a negative impact on representation or equality. There is, for example, a danger that some constituencies will be left without a nationalist representative in some cases or a unionist representative in others.”

Other MLAs who took part in the debate stressed the need for representation of smaller parties, and women in the Assembly. Danny Kennedy of the UUP said, “We also need to see what protections will be in place for some of the smaller parties.”
Women who are already represented in politics could suffer as a result of the reduction of MLAs. Caitríona Ruane said “I welcome the agreement. Let us put it in place now, but let us also make sure that each one of us is proactive in ensuring that we have more women on the ticket.”

If the changes were implemented at this current time, the reduction of MLAs would have affected certain groups within the assembly disproportionately. Based on current election results nationalists within the assembly would be set to lose a staggering 22.5% of their representatives, compared to a unionist loss of 12.5%. Those who designate as “others” would lose 16.66% of their representatives. Hypothetically speaking the Green Party would be the only party who designate as “other” who would not lose a seat. Their party press officer Sara McCracken said, “The Green Party will be working to consolidate its position and increase representation… Green Party supports the changes but have been working towards this coming in after the current mandate.” There would be a 13.33% loss of women in an assembly where women make up just 27.77% of its members.

MLA change new

The Assembly passed the Reduction of Numbers Bill in February of this year which will implement the changes to the number of MLAs as outlined in the “Fresh Start Agreement”. Parties need to work to consolidate their own positions. They also need to consolidate the diversity of representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Reduction of MLAs will certainly save money, but it could be at a heavy price.

Super Councils for Dummies

The reform of local government in Northern Ireland sees the replacement of the 26 districts created in 1973 with a smaller number of super districts.

The review process began in 2002 with proposals for either seven or 11 districts made before it was suspended in 2010. On March 12 2012 the Northern Ireland Executive published its programme for government which included a commitment to reduce the number of councils in Northern Ireland to 11. The first elections were on May 22 2014.

From April 1 2015 the new councils took over. The new councils provide the same services as previous councils however they have a number of new powers and responsibilities which are outlined in the table below.

Planning

· Local development plan functions

· Development control and enforcement

Roads

· Off-street parking
Local economic development

· Start a Business Programme and Enterprise Shows

· Youth entrepreneurship (such as Prince’s Trust and Shell Livewire)

· Social entrepreneurship

· Investing for Women

· Neighbourhood renewal funding relating to enterprises initiatives

Local Tourism

· Small-scale tourism accommodation development

· Providing business support including business start-up advice, along with training and delivery of customer care schemes

· Providing advice to developers on tourism policies and related issues

Heritage

· Small-scale tourism accommodation development

· Providing business support including business start-up advice, along with training and delivery of customer care schemes

· Providing advice to developers on tourism policies and related issues

Urban regeneration and community development

· Small-scale tourism accommodation development

· Providing business support including business start-up advice, along with training and delivery of customer care schemes

· Providing advice to developers on tourism policies and related issues

Other services

· Small-scale tourism accommodation development

· Providing business support including business start-up advice, along with training and delivery of customer care schemes

· Providing advice to developers on tourism policies and related issues

There are two overriding key benefits to the reform of councils in Northern Ireland.

1. Improved service provision

Councils are being given new responsibilities and a broader range of powers. Combined with partnership working with other Departments and agencies operating in their areas, this will make councils stronger, more effective and flexible to local need. They will be able to better co-ordinate service delivery and avoid duplication, leading to more efficient, high quality services.

2. Long-term cost savings

The potential long term financial benefits are substantial as amalgamating 26 councils into 11 brings with it economies of scale. The costs and benefits of reform are currently being examined to take account of the 2015 programme timetable, the sector’s Improvement, Collaboration and Efficiency proposals and the current economic climate in which reform is now being taken forward.

Councillors have been reduced in number from 582 to 462, each receiving an allowance of £14,200 a year. Those members who hold office such as mayor, deputy mayor or committee chair will also receive a special responsibility allowance.

The following table outlines the new council areas, their location and their electorate.

Council

Where

Who

Fermanagh and Omagh

All of Co. Fermanagh and parts of TyroneBorders Donegal, Leitrim, Cavan and Monaghan

Electorate of 74,414

Derry and Strabane

Includes Co. Londonderry and Tyrone

Borders Co. Donegal

Electorate of 92,593

Mid Ulster

Includes part of Co. Londonderry, Tyrone and Armagh

Borders Monaghan

Electorate of 86,591

Causeway Coast and Glens

Includes part of Co. Antrim and Londonderry Electorate of 88,654

Mid and East Antrim

Part of Co. Antrim

Electorate of 89,832

Antrim and Newtownabbey

Part of Co. Antrim

Electorate of 84,996

Belfast

Belfast City

Electorate of 323,567

Lisburn and Castlereagh

Many of the outer suburbs of Belfast

Electorate of 83,369

North Down and Ards

 

Ards Peninsula, most of Stangford lough and the southern shore of Belfast Lough

Electorate of 102,313

Newry, Mourne and Down

 

Includes Southern Co. Armagh and Co. DownBorders Co. Louth and Monaghan Electorate of 107,233
Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Includes parts of Co. Armagh and Down

Electorate 124,996

Map showing the 26 old  local government districts in Northern Ireland
Map showing the 11 new local government districts in Northern Ireland
Map showing the 11 new local government districts in Northern Ireland
Map showing the existing and new local government districts in Northern Ireland
Map showing the existing and new local government districts in Northern Ireland

If you are unsure as to your new council area and electoral ward, enter your postcode here.

There are fears over minority communities in the new council areas as Stormont’s two main power blocs tighten their grip on local government.

Ten out of the 11 new super councils are dominated either by unionists or nationalists consolidating the green and orange politics of the province. This has given rise to fears that local level politics could cement the divisions which have been evident at Stormont.

Belfast is the only council which remains ‘hung’ where Alliance holds the balance of power between unionists and nationalists.

David Ford, Alliance MLA has said, “As the new councils will have more responsibilities, it is imperative that councillors move beyond the orange and green tribal politics and towards a more inclusive style of governing,”

“Councillors must work together to deliver the best possible services for ratepayers, and council positions must be fairly distributed.”

Arnold Hatch, President of the umbrella councils body, the Northern Ireland Local Government Association (NILGA), said: “The large parties tend to dominate, whether it’s the west of the province with Sinn Fein or the east of the province with the DUP. That has been the case.

“But at the same time 99% of the decisions which councils have to take are done on a consensual basis and my firm belief is that if councils are given real responsibilities they will knuckle down to that work and these petty arguments over positions will diminish.”

Bill White, chair of polling organisation LucidTalk, said: “I think it is arguable that the boundaries for the new Belfast council were designed in such a way to ensure it would remain a hung council – as predicted by ourselves and many others.

“I think the hope was that there would be more hung councils, in Causeway Coast and Glens, for example, and Mid and East Antrim, but that has not turned out to be the case.”

An interactive map highlighting the difference between the old and new council areas can be found here.