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Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Non-Sectarian Politics

I spent the whole of yesterday in Northern Ireland helping Alliance Party candidates in their Assembly Elections, which take place on Wednesday. This was an enjoyable experience, though the seven hours or so I spent leafletting in the cold and the rain seems to have left me with a small cold this morning. The interesting part of the trip for a sad political hack like me was the opportunity to campaign in an election being fought under the single transferable vote system of election. This is the most proportional method of fair voting. Essentially, six MLAs are elected from each Westminster constituency, by people voting in order of preference. The winning candidates need to secure a certain proportion of the vote (or quota) before they are elected and this is achieved by transferring surplus votes until a result has been achieved. This can lead to long counts. In East Antrim for example there is something like 40 candidates. All the ballot papers are counted manually, although there are faster computerised ways of carrying out the necessary transfers and calculations, and as this constituency is likely to be close then a result might take up to 48 hours to be reached. The tactics that are deployed in these elections are not as sophisticated as in the south but nevertheless are effective. Parties promote different candidates for the first preference vote in different parts of the constituency, whilst tactical voting is alos prevalent, especially as majorities are much smaller due to the method of voting.

The tragedy of course is that after this display of intense democratic activity the Northern Ireland Assembly may never get to meet. The sectarianism that has plagued the province for so many years has been institutionalised in the constitution of the Assembly. With the likelihood of gains for both the DUP and Sinn Fein, the chances of a cross party executive being agreed is unlikely. Furthermore, even if one could be brokered the fact that a First Minister needs to secure a majority of both Unionists and Nationalists means that with the first group at least that is not likely to happen. The last time this deadlock was reached it was only broken after some Alliance Party MLAs agreed to reclassify themselves as Unionists just for the vote, switching back to their neutral stance straight afterwards. They have said that they will not do that again and that the solution must lie in a reform of the Assembly so that it deals with issues and not divisions. They are right. There is so much that needs to be done in the Province. Surely, if they are to have legislative devolution then it must be used to govern Northern Ireland, not as a political football to promote sectarian divisions. The short term fixes that have got the peace process so far will shortly hit a brick wall. It is at that point that the real talking must begin, the posturing must stop and the compromises made. If that does not happen then I fear that the Province will slip back into violence. That would be very very sad.

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