The 2007 Northern Ireland elections resulted in a victory for the Democratic Unionist Party, which won 36 out of 108 seats. 63.5% of a total electorate of over a million voters participated. Because Northern Ireland uses choice voting for their parliamentary elections, the results were proportional and pluralistic. The DUP received 30.1% of first choices and 33.3% of the seats. Sinn Fein received 26.2% of first choices and 25.9% of the seats. The Ulster Unionist Party came in third with 14.9% of first choices and 16.7% of the seats. The Social Democratic and Labour Party came in fourth with 15.2% of first choices and 14.8% of the seats. The outcome of this election is important in determining who will comprise the Executive Committee. The British and Irish governments require a power sharing executive comprised of Unionists and Irish Nationalists be formed by March 26 before home rule is reestablished in Northern Ireland.
Election System Basics
Northern Ireland has a unicameral parliamentary system. There are 6 elected members per district, and there are 18 districts in total. Members are elected to serve 5-year terms. The parliamentary elections use proportional voting to fill the 108 seats of the Assembly. Choice voting is used to elect each member, allowing voters to rank their choices in order of preference. This system is designed to transfer wasted and surplus votes in order to ensure fuller representation. Choice voting, or single transferable voting as it is known in Northern Ireland, was used to elect the lower house of the original bicameral parliament that was established by the Government of Ireland Act of 1920. Winner-take-all voting was instituted in 1929 at the insistence of grassroots Unionists. Choice voting was reestablished in Northern Ireland in 1973 for the purposes of easing tensions between the Nationalist and Unionist communities, advantaging moderate and non-sectarian voters, and ensuring fairer representation for the Catholic minority.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has been suspended since 2002 as a result of an intelligence controversy involving the Executive Committee and members of the former IRA. The 2006 Northern Ireland Act established a Transitional Northern Ireland Assembly, which was dissolved on January 30, 2007, in preparation for the March 7 elections. British and Irish leaders hope the election will result in balanced power sharing between the Unionists and Sinn Fein. Northern Ireland’s electorate is bitterly divided over the issue of devolution. Unionists, who are predominately Protestant, wish to remain part of the United Kingdom, whereas supporters of Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist party that draws its support from Irish Catholics, want Northern Ireland to become part of a unified Ireland. If power sharing is not achieved by March 26, the deadline imposed by the British and Irish governments, the Assembly will be dissolved and a “partnership government” will be implemented to replace it.
Devolution was a key issue of the 2007 Legislative Assembly elections. Northern Ireland has been under direct rule since the Legislative Assembly was suspended in 2002. In October 2006, the Irish and British governments organized talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein at St. Andrews, Scotland, which resulted in the 2006 Northern Ireland Act. The act requires the creation of a power sharing Executive Committee before devolved home rule is restored to Northern Ireland.
Initial reactions to the 2007 elections were hopeful. Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and Prime Minister Bertie Ahern of Ireland said in a joint statement that the elections show that voters want a return to devolution. “Restoration of the devolved institutions represents an opportunity of historic proportions,” they said. “It must not be missed.”
Devolution remains contingent on the formation of a power sharing Executive Committee. Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State Peter Hain has issued several warnings threatening a return to direct rule if the Executive Committee fails to meet the requirements of the St. Andrews agreements. Given the election results, the Executive Committee would need to be comprised of four DUP ministers, three Sinn Fein, two UUP, and one SDLP in order to meet the requirements.
Although the leaders of the four major parties have expressed their commitment to devolution, uncertainty remains over whether a power sharing executive will be created by the deadline. DUP leaders are skeptical about Sinn Fein’s commitment to the St. Andrews agreements. “Sinn Fein are not entitled to be at the same table until they declare themselves in favor of democracy,” said DUP leader Rev. Ian Paisley during a speech in North Antrim. Particularly, the DUP wants Sinn Fein to show more support for Northern Ireland’s police force, which traditionally has been comprised largely of Protestants.
Proportional Representation of Major and Minor Parties
Northern Ireland’s electoral system of parliamentary choice voting resulted in roughly proportional representation. As the Proportionality Analysis demonstrates, deviations from proportionality were relatively minimal. Major parties received roughly the same percentage of seats as they had first choices. Unionists were slightly over represented in the Legislative Assembly, with the DUP receiving 3.2% and the UUP receiving 1.8% more seats than they had first choices. Sinn Fein was slightly under represented. They received 0.3% more first choices than seats won. These trends were mostly due to the demographic makeup of Northern Ireland’s 18 districts. The northern districts are heavily Protestant, whereas the southern and middle districts are more evenly comprised of Catholics and Protestants. Neither party received majority support. Coalition building between the Unionists and Nationalists will therefore be imperative for devolution to succeed.
Several minor parties also received representation as a result of choice voting. The Alliance Party won seven seats and 5.2% of first choices, and the Progressive Unionist Party won a seat. Independent Dr. Kieran Deeny was reelected to the Assembly, winning widespread support in West Tyrone on a platform to save a local hospital.
The Green Party made history with its first ever Legislative Assembly win. Northern Ireland Green Party leader Brian Wilson was elected in North Downy after the 10th count. “We are one of the youngest political parties in Northern Ireland but these elections have shown the level of support out there for our policies, and how quickly this support is growing,” said Wilson. The Green Party won 1.7% of first choices overall, and Wilson polled 2,839 first choices.
The defeat of the UK Unionist Party is another significant trend. The party, under the leadership of former North Downy MP Bob McCartney, ran in 6 districts on an anti-St. Andrews agreement platform. Although winning 1.5% of first choices, the UKUP was unable to win a single seat. DUP and UUP leaders have consistently accused McCartney of dividing Unionists and splitting their vote, but because of choice voting, neither party was affected by the threat of a UKUP spoiler. Choice voting allows voters to rank like-minded candidates in order of preference. If their first choice is eliminated, then their second choice is transferred to help elect that candidate. Unionists and Nationalists alike are therefore able to vote for their first choice without the fear of splitting their community votes.
|Party Name||Total First Choices||% of First Choices||Seats||% of Seats||Deviation from Proportionality|
|Democratic Unionist Party||207,721||30.1%||36||33.3%||+3.2%|
|Ulster Unionist Party||103,145||14.9%||18||16.7%||+1.8%|
|Social Democratic and Labour Party||105,164||15.2%||16||14.8%||-0.4%|
|Progressive Unionist Party||3,822||0.6%||1||0.93%||+0.33%|
Media on NI Elections
BBC News: “Northern Ireland election”