Our most recent assembly elections in 2016 and 2017 have shown that the Northern Irish electorate are voting more and more about a number of different issues, from Brexit to matters of LGBT and gender equality. The breakdown of the Northern Irish Assembly in January 2017 prompted a snap election. So how was this change to more progressive politics reflected in the views of our politicians, and how do people use information on policies to make decisions when they vote?
A cause for celebration amongst progressive voters is the DUP now being under the 30 seats they need to form a petition of concern by themselves. However they may still be able to block progressive reform by forming alliances with other parties to gain the 30 signatures needed.
The most recent election period and the debate leading up to it has shown that Northern Irish voters are moving faster in favour of progressive reform than our politicians are. However, I was one of the people who helped to create the Pro-Choice MLA Candidate Spreadsheet with Alliance for Choice and the response from particular parties and politicians was extremely refreshing. The spreadsheet was created by two activists last year in order to have a resource in one place for the views of our politicians on abortion law reform, and for the election in March 2017, we attempted to do something similar. We sought the position from parties, which had a firm stance on abortion law reform, and applied that position to all candidates running in those parties. However the Alliance Party and the Ulster Unionist Party both take abortion as an issue of ‘conscience’ for their members, so we had to contact every individual candidate from both those two parties, as well as contacting the independent candidates running for the election.
More parties have extremely progressive stances on abortion law reform, with the Green Party, the People Before Profit Alliance, the Workers’ Party, Cross-Community Labour Alternative and the Progressive Unionist Party ALL supporting the full decriminalisation of abortion.
Other parties, such as the Alliance Party, who take abortion as a matter of individual conscience for their MLAs, fielded different candidates in this election. They have shown a huge shift within the party to more progressive abortion policies, and again we have seen more Alliance candidates supporting the decriminalisation of abortion.
We had a disappointing response from other parties however; the DUP would not outright state their position on abortion and instead linked us to their manifesto, in which abortion was not mentioned once, and the SDLP did not reply when we attempted to contact them and have been referring to themselves as a ‘pro-life’ party during the election campaign. Sinn Féin also take a disappointingly limited stance on abortion law reform, supporting reform only in cases of ‘fatal foetal abnormality’ and where a pregnancy is a result of sexual crime. Sinn Féin’s stance overall, has been confusing and inconsistent, and seems to change depending on which side of the Irish border they are speaking from. Despite appearing to support the campaign for Repeal the 8th, and condemning the ongoing criminalisation of women in Northern Ireland, disappointingly, they have not supported the decriminalisation of abortion as a party policy in Northern Ireland.
The Ulster Unionist Party, like the Alliance Party, take abortion to be an issue of conscience, and therefore their MLAs vote according to their own individual stances on abortion. Given this, we attempted to contact every UUP MLA candidate, with limited to no response – the only candidate who responded by email was the party leader, Mike Nesbitt.
We had an overwhelmingly positive response to our election spreadsheet, and I personally had several people tell me that they used it to help inform not only their first preferences, but also how they transferred their votes down the ballot sheet.
The voting system in Northern Ireland is the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system. This is a form of proportional representation, meaning that rather than having a majority rule government, we are governed by two or more parties, who form a coalition.
Many people know who they want to pick as their first preference, the party who speaks most to them and their beliefs, but how do you transfer a vote?
In this particular election, I chose to vote for the party closest to my belief system first, and then voted for other progressive parties and politicians. This meant that in the case of my first preference not having enough votes, my vote would then move to my second choice, then my third and so on.
Another aspect to this system is that there is a ‘quota’, a set number of votes that candidates usually must reach, in order to be elected. Many politicians do not reach the quota in the first count of votes; however when other candidates are knocked out of the race because they don’t have enough votes, their votes may be transferred on to other candidates, to help them reach this quota. Similarly, when a candidate reaches and passes the quota, the excess votes they have are transferred proportionally to the next preference candidates, who are still in the race.
Transfers are extremely important and figures from the 2017 election, released by the Northern Ireland Assembly, show that 80% (72 out of 90) of our MLAs were elected due to transfers. This is why it is so important to transfer down your sheet, because it helps to boost the vote for more progressive parties and politicians, particularly shown in South Belfast where the Green Party took the final seat mainly with the help of SDLP transfers. This was an example where a pro-choice candidate won a seat because of transfer votes.
It’s a complicated system, which can be hard to keep up with and is usually why our elections run on so late on into the night. Many pro-choice supporters and campaigners were up to all hours of the morning on twitter #Awake4Bailey, hoping to see pro-choice politician and the deputy leader of the Green Party, Clare Bailey, re-elected as MLA for South Belfast. I was delighted to wake up the next day to see pictures of a victorious Clare at the count centre in her #trustwomen t-shirt!
We are, at the minute, in the final stages of attempting forming an assembly and in the course of that assembly we shall have to see if politicians in favour of abortion law reform are able to effect any change, and if certain parties, such as the SDLP and DUP will allow pro-choice MLAs to vote with their beliefs when it comes to abortion. Recent developments with the PSNI increasing their attack on pro-choice activists may lead to abortion as a political issue being given more of a spotlight than ever before. Clare Bailey has recently proposed a motion to decriminalise early medical abortion, hopefully prioritising the issue for the newly created assembly.
We have yet to see what the future holds for our current assembly, and with current talk of calling yet another election there is still much uncertainty about our government, but the past few months has shown that people in Northern Ireland are hungry for change, especially around the topic of abortion.