Northern Irish devolved elections: a summary

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In the 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly election, parties that support maintaining the Union between Northern Ireland and the UK won less than 50% of the seats for the first time ever. Recent polls now suggest that the nationalist Sinn Féin party will win the most seats in the next Assembly election, due to be held in 2022. This would not change the constitutional status of the region, but it is an astonishing shift given the area’s history: in 1969, unionist parties won 73% of the vote and 79% of the seats in the region’s devolved legislature.

To appreciate just how remarkable these shifts are, it is worth looking back at previous elections in Northern Ireland.

Historical context

As some of you may know, the Northern Ireland Assembly was established in the late 1990s after several failed attempts (in 1973, 1975 and 1982). What fewer may know is that Northern Ireland had its own independent legislature – the Parliament of Northern Ireland – prior to its abolition in 1973.

Established by the UK Parliament just before the partition of Ireland, the Parliament of Northern Ireland comprised a directly-elected House of Commons and an indirectly elected Senate, and had almost total legislative power over the province (excluding foreign policy, some taxes and some UK-wide services).

From the first election in 1921 until the Parliament’s abolition in 1973, the conservative Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) held an uninterrupted landslide majority in both Houses of Parliament, winning over 60% of Commons seats in every single election. Originally elected by the proportional Single Transferable Vote (STV) system, it was elected by first-past-the-post (FPTP) from 1929 onward.

Major political parties

Despite the Liberal and Conservative parties competing in Ireland before the 1920s, following the partition of Ireland the UK parties ceased to compete in Northern Ireland. Parties specific to the region emerged, largely characterised by their position on Irish unification. The major political parties in Northern Ireland varied – from the 1920s until the 1960s only three major parties consistently won multiple seats, but following the abolition of the Northern Ireland Parliament two of these parties declined and several new parties emerged.

1921-1973

  • Ulster Unionists (UUP): centre-right unionists aligned with the UK Tories.
  • Nationalists: remnants of the old Irish Parliamentary Party in Northern Ireland, who supported the unification of Ireland. The Nationalists initially boycotted the Parliament; its MPs took their seats periodically after 1925.
  • Northern Ireland Labour: a centre-left party (not linked to the UK or Irish Labour parties) that supported the union but focused on labour issues.

1973-present

  • Ulster Unionists (UUP): centre-right unionists.
  • Social Democratic and Labour (SDLP): centre-left nationalists.
  • Democratic Unionists (DUP): right-wing unionists.
  • Alliance: centrist party that takes a neutral position on the union.
  • Sinn Féin: left-wing nationalists.
  • Vanguard Progressive Unionist (until 1978): right-wing unionists.

In addition to these major parties, independent unionist candidates and other small parties have frequently been elected in small numbers.

Analysing results

Historical elections in Northern Ireland are more difficult to analyse than one might expect. The reason for this is that, due to the UUP’s overwhelming support in Northern Ireland, elections to the Northern Ireland House of Commons were not widely contested. In many seats (sometimes over 50% of seats!) only one candidate was nominated, and was elected without any votes being cast.

These sorts of unopposed elections used to be common in mainland Britain, as explained in my previous article. But in Northern Ireland, unopposed elections continued to be common – even, arguably, the norm – all the way up until the early 1970s.

As a result, the popular vote in these elections does not reflect the actual balance of political opinion in Northern Ireland. In 1933, for instance, the UUP received just 44% of the popular vote – but 27 of the party’s 36 MPs were elected without a contest, meaning that around 200,000 votes that would have gone to the UUP were simply never cast, which (taking into account other uncontested seats) would have brought their total up to 67%. I have therefore provided vote estimates for these uncontested seats, to better illustrate the actual state of politics in Northern Ireland at the time. My methodology is explained here.

Northern Ireland House of Commons (1921-1969)

The table below lists elections to the Northern Ireland House of Commons. The first two elections were conducted under STV; all future elections used FPTP. Parties required only a simple majority of MPs in order to govern.

Note: due to the enormous number of uncontested seats, the popular vote totals from 1925 onwards are my estimates based on the average vote of successful candidates in contested seats.

Northern Ireland devolved assemblies (1973-1996)

Following the abolition of the Northern Ireland Parliament, the UK government sought to create various devolved Assemblies and conventions between the 1970s and 1990s. The 1973, 1975 and 1982 assemblies failed; the 1996 forum ultimately succeeded and the first election to the modern Northern Ireland Assembly was held in 1998.

The first three elections used STV, whilst the 1996 election used a proportional party list system, with 2 top-up seats allocated to the top ten parties.

Northern Ireland Assembly (1998-present)

The current Northern Ireland Assembly held its first election in 1998, and although disagreements between the parties have seen the Assembly suspended multiple times (most recently between 2017 and 2020), the institution still exists today.

To facilitate the peace process, the government is composed of (at minimum) the major unionist party and the major nationalist party – currently the DUP (unionist) and Sinn Fein (nationalist). The number of seats in the executive is allocated proportionally according to a party’s share of first preference votes.

All of these elections used STV.

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