One fifth of Stormont Assembly members are ‘unelected’ or appointed by parties

ONE in five MLAs who will finish the current five-year Assembly term were not elected into position by the public.

The impending retirement and replacement of First Minister and east Belfast MLA Peter Robinson means that 22 of the 108 MLAs (20.4%) at Stormont will have been appointed by their parties and not the electorate.

Substitute MLAs have been appointed in 12 of the 18 Assembly constituencies, with four of the current six south Belfast Assembly members unelected.

The Detail Data project, which gathered the figures, notes that legislation introduced in 2010 allows parties to replace outgoing members with a replacement politician of their choice – in a process that the public has no official means of objecting to.

The substitution mechanism aims to eliminate arguments caused by the old co-option system and to eradicate by-election costs estimated at up to £215,000 per poll.

There are multiple reasons for the large turnover of MLAs, with the eradication of double jobbing among political representatives one of the main drivers.

In the current Assembly term 14 members have left Stormont in favour of seats in Westminster, Brussels or local councils. Ill health has also been cited as the rationale for a number of other substitutions.

According to election analyst Nicholas Whyte the current scenario represents the “least worst option” for the electorate, even though some of the changes have caused public controversy. “By-elections are expensive, not supported by the electorate in terms of turnout, and distort the electoral representation in that smaller parties are less likely to win them. Nomination by party leaders is in some ways the least worst option - at least in that case the electoral balance of the previous election is preserved, in numbers if not in person.”

But in addition to MLA replacements there have been major shifts in who sits at the Executive table, with repeated ministerial changes raising questions over continuity of leadership in departments.

Only five of the 15 ministerial and junior ministerial seats have been occupied by the same representative for the complete duration of the Assembly term that began in May 2011. The key departments of health and finance have seen three ministers each in the current Assembly term, while enterprise, environment, social development, regional development and the two junior ministries have also seen changes. Both Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have temporarily stepped down from their positions in the current term – Mr Robinson during the DUP’s in-out strategy and Mr McGuinness during his Irish presidential candidacy. As such, only the departments of agriculture, culture, education, employment & learning and justice have had the same minister at the helm for the duration of the current term.

But the changes can have an impact on the public according to some groups lobbying the Assembly. Anita Flanagan of Fermanagh Community Transport (FCT) said her organisation raised the issue of rural transport with the former Department of Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy. “We had met with Danny Kennedy a number of times and had built up a relationship with him,” she said. He had been to our office, he met with our users and he had built up a knowledge of what we do. Community Transport is only a small part of the Regional Development minister’s budget – when you look at things like Translink. But we got it brought up his agenda through engagement and asking questions. We met him twice in July and at the end of the second meeting felt that we were getting somewhere. There is now a new minister and that minister needs to learn her post which takes time. So every time you have a new minister you have to start from scratch which is difficult – especially when there are cuts to be made. There will probably be a new minister again after the election and the change in departments.”

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