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Introduction to the Electoral System in Northern Ireland

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Text and Research: Brendan Lynn
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Introduction to the Electoral System in Northern Ireland

Types of Elections
Systems of Voting
Suggested Reading
Web Sites



Elections in Northern Ireland have been held to elect representatives to a number of different bodies and institutions. The method of voting in these elections has been based on a variety of systems. The following page gives a brief description of both the type of elections held in the region as well as the systems of voting that have been adopted. The electoral franchise in Northern Ireland has largely followed the pattern of the rest of the United Kingdom towards the adoption of universal adult suffrage. There were however exceptions to this trend most notably in the period after the Second World War until the late 1960s. During this time elections to the Stormont parliament, and to local authorities in Northern Ireland, were conducted under franchises which contained a number of distinctive features that were not then to be found elsewhere in the United Kingdom.


Types of Elections

Northern Ireland Parliament (Stormont) Elections, 1921-1969

Between June 1921 and March 1972 Northern Ireland had its own devolved administration within the United Kingdom. This administration had control over a wide range of internal issues such as law and order, local government representation, agriculture, social services, education, industry, and internal trade. However the Westminster parliament retained its supremacy over external issues such as foreign trade, foreign affairs, defence, major taxation powers, as well as customs and excise. In 1932 the seat of government in Northern Ireland, along with its parliamentary institutions, moved to a purpose built site on the Stormont estate, just outside the city of Belfast.

The form of government and parliament in Northern Ireland was largely modelled on the Westminster model with a 52 seat lower house (House of Commons) and a 26 member upper house (Senate). The Senate consisted of 24 members elected by Proportional Representation (PR) by members of the House of Commons along with two ex-officio members, the Mayor of Londonderry Corporation and the Lord Mayor of Belfast. As for the House of Commons this was elected for a five-year term. Initially members were elected by PR through the Single Transferable Vote (PR-STV) method and represented a number of multi-seat constituencies. By the time however of the 1929 general election PR had been abolished in favour of the 'first past the post' (FPTP) system with members being returned for single-seat constituencies. (The only exception to this change was the university constituency of Queen’s University Belfast which continued to return four candidates to parliament up until 1969 under a system of PR.) This was the system still in operation until March 1973 when the Northern Ireland parliament was suspended in favour of the introduction of 'direct rule' from Westminster.

From 1921 onwards the authorities in Northern Ireland adopted an electoral franchise for elections to its local parliament that closely resembled the concept of universal adult suffrage introduced in the United Kingdom for parliamentary elections there. However from the late 1940s up until the end of the 1960s the Northern Ireland government chose to retain the business vote and university vote for Stormont elections, long after such practices were abolished in the rest of Britain. These two anomalies were not to be ended in Northern Ireland until 1968 with the passage of the Electoral Law Amendment Act.

Northern Ireland Assembly Elections 1972-2004

After the suspension of the Stormont parliament in March 1972 by the Westminster authorities successive British governments have sought to return some measure of devolved power back to Northern Ireland politicians. In pursuit of this goal various assemblies and other institutions have been established and these have included the Northern Ireland Assembly (1973-1974); the Constitutional Convention (1975-1976); the Northern Ireland Assembly (1982-1986); the Northern Ireland Forum (1996-1998); and, the Northern Ireland Assembly (1998-2003 and 2003-present).

The electoral franchise for all these bodies was based on universal adult suffrage. However there have been important differences in terms of the methods used to elect members as well as in the make up of the electoral constituencies. The elections for the Assembly in June 1973, the Convention in May 1975, and the Assembly in October 1982 were conducted by PR-STV and 78 seats were contested based on the (then) 12 Westminster constituencies.

For the election to the Northern Ireland Forum in May 1996 a new approach was adopted. In this instance five candidates were returned from the 18 Westminster constituencies drawn from party lists. Initially candidates were elected by PR-STV using the Droop quota with the remaining seats decided by d’Hondt or highest average. A further 20 seats were then to be divided amongst the 10 parties across Northern Ireland who received the highest number of votes, making a grand total of 110 seats.

In the contests for the Assembly in June 1998, and again in November 2003, the 18 Westminster constituencies each returned six members for a total of 108 seats by means of PR-STV.

Westminster General Elections

After 1921 Northern Ireland continued to send elected representatives to the Westminster parliament. The number of MPs returned for Northern Ireland constituencies has ranged from 12 to the present figure of 18. As in the rest of the United Kingdom the elections have been conducted on the first past the post system, apart from the Queen’s University constituency, which used a system of proportional representation. This seat however was only contested on one occasion in 1945 and was subsequently abolished by the Representation of the People Act 1948. With regards elections to Westminster the franchise in Northern Ireland has always followed the system currently in operation in the rest of the United Kingdom. The electoral franchise in Northern Ireland for Westminster elections since 1921 has followed the British model which has been based on the step-by-step introduction of universal adult suffrage.

Local Government (District Council) Elections

From 1921 until the suspension of devolved power in 1972 the system of local government in Northern Ireland remained largely unchanged from that introduced under the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898. As a consequence by the late 1960s for a population of some 1.5 million there were some 73 local authorities across Northern Ireland. The electoral franchise for local government elections continued to be based on certain practices abandoned in the rest of the United Kingdom by 1946. For instance in Northern Ireland the franchise was based on the ratepayer suffrage and the company vote. Ratepayer suffrage meant that, with some exceptions, only those who were owners or tenants of a dwelling (or their spouses) were entitled to vote in local government elections. Thus many adults who were lodgers or still living at their parents home did not receive a vote. It was estimated that in 1961 over a quarter of the parliamentary electorate were disfranchised at local elections. The company vote resulted in a number of company directors (property owners) being entitled to more than one vote.

Proposals for reform of the system by the Northern Ireland government were overtaken by the social and political unrest at the end of the 1960s. This led to a wide ranging report by Sir Patrick Macrory in 1970 that advocated a major overhaul with 26 district councils replacing the existing structures. The first election to these new bodies took place in May 1973 with the franchise widened to embrace universal adult suffrage. The occasion also marked the re-introduction of PR-STV, which had been abolished for local government elections by the Northern Ireland government in 1922. Local government elections in Northern Ireland since 1973 have taken place every four years.

European Elections

Since 1979 elections for the European parliament have taken place every five years. For the purpose of the European elections Northern Ireland is treated as a single constituency and voting is by means of (PR) with three members being returned as Members of the European Parliament (MEPs).


Since the return to direct rule in March 1972 there have been three occasions on which the electorate in Northern Ireland have taken part in referenda. Each time Northern Ireland was treated as a single constituency with people faced with two choices concerning a particular issue. The choice that secured a simple majority was deemed to be the winner. In March 1973 the referendum sought to establish existing support for the constitutional link with Britain or for a united Ireland. In June 1975 the electorate in Northern Ireland took part in the British referendum on the question of whether Britain should remain a member of the European Economic Community (EEC). Finally, in May 1998 the people of Northern Ireland were asked in a referendum to endorse or reject the Good Friday Agreement.


Systems of Voting

First Past The Post

In elections to the Westminster parliament the system for electing candidates has always been based on 'first past the post'. Under this method in each single seat constituency the voter simply puts an ‘X’ on the ballot paper beside the candidate of their choice and the candidate who obtains the most votes is deemed to be elected.

Proportional Representation through the Single Transferable Vote (PR-STV)

This system has been used extensively in Northern Ireland since 1973 for local government elections, elections to the European Parliament, and elections to local assemblies. Using this method voters rank candidates according to their preference, with ‘1’ for their favourite, a ‘2’ for their next choice, and so on through the list. Voters can vote for as many or as few candidates as they choose. Candidates have to meet a 'quota' to be elected. The formula used for deciding the quota is known as the 'Droop Quota'. Essentially the quota is the total number of valid votes cast divided by one more than the number of seats to be filled, plus one. Any candidate who reaches the quota is deemed elected. Any candidate who has a surplus over the quota has this excess distributed among other candidates on the basis of voters' next preferences. The candidate with the lowest number of votes is then eliminated and these votes are transferred on the basis of voters' preferences. This process is continued until the number of seats in each electoral constituency is filled.

List System

There are a number of variations to the list system but its use in Northern Ireland for the election to the Talks Forum in May 1996 was based partly on the closed party list. On this occasion rather than voting for a specific candidate in a multi-member constituency the elector was asked to give their vote to a particular party. In turn each party’s list of candidates was ranked in terms of the party’s preference. Once the votes were counted each political party won seats in proportion to the number of votes it received. Those duly elected were those placed highest in the party’s list of candidates.


Suggested Reading

Birrell, D., and Murie, A. (1989), Policy Government in Northern Ireland: Lessons of Devolution. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.

Elliott, Sydney. Flackes, W.D. (1999), Northern Ireland: a political directory, 1968-1999. (5th ed.). Belfast: Blackstaff Press.

Elliott, Sydney. (ed.) (1973), Northern Ireland Parliamentary Election Results, 1921-1972. Chichester, Chichester Political Reference Publications.

Elliott, Sydney. Flackes, W. D. (1999), 'Systems of Government', in, Northern Ireland: A Political Directory, 1968-1999. Belfast: Blackstaff Press.

Elliott, Sydney, ‘Voting systems and political parties in Northern Ireland’, in Hadfield, Brigid. (ed.) (1992), Northern Ireland: Politics and the Constitution. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Mitchell, Paul and Gillespie, Gordon, ‘The Electoral Systems’, in Mitchell, Paul., and Wilford, Rick. (eds.) (1999), Politics in Northern Ireland. Oxford: Westview.

Northern Ireland Office (NIO). (1973), Questions & Answers on Proportional Representation. Belfast: NIO. Belfast: Northern Ireland Office.

Walker, Brian. (1992), Parliamentary Election Results in Ireland 1918-1992: Irish Elections to Parliaments and Parliamentary Assemblies at Westminster, Belfast, Dublin, Strasbourg. Dublin and Belfast: Royal Irish Academy & Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University.

Wilford, Rick, ‘Regional Assemblies and Parliament’, in Mitchell, Paul., and Wilford, Rick. (eds.) (1999), Politics in Northern Ireland. Oxford: Westview.


Web Sites

Politics, Political Parties and Elections in Northern Ireland:

Results of Elections in Northern Ireland:

The Electoral Commission:

Electoral Office Northern Ireland:

Electoral Reform Society:

First Past The Post system of voting:

Single Transferable Vote (STV) system of voting:

List System of voting:

Droop Quota:


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