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The single transferable vote and ethnic conflict: the evidence from Northern Ireland

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  • Hn Social History And Conditions. Social Problems. Social Reform
  • Ht Communities. Classes. Races
  • Jc Political Theory
  • Jn101 Great Britain
  • Engineering
  • Law


There has been a long-running debate amongst constitutional engineers between those who favour the proportional representation of parties (usually via PR-Closed List systems) and post-election power-sharing (Lijphart) and those who favour attempting to induce pre-election inter-ethnic ‘vote-pooling’ (Horowitz) as a more effective and stable method of governing divided societies. Less attention has been paid to the fact that other options are available. A leading candidate amongst these is the Single Transferable Vote (STV), a non-categorical ordinal ballot system that may be capable of combining the essential ‘fairness’ of proportionality with the centripetal benefits of some inter-ethnic vote-pooling. Northern Ireland is the only divided society with extensive experience of STV elections. This paper examines the empirical evidence before and after the 1998 Belfast Agreement by examining the operation of the electoral system at the Northern Ireland Assembly elections of 1982, 1998, 2003, 2007 and 2011. The main findings are that prior to the 1998 Agreement inter-ethnic vote-pooling in Northern Ireland was very close to zero. Afterwards (1998–2007) terminal transfers from the moderate unionist UUP to the moderate nationalist SDLP averaged 32 per cent (and 13 per cent in the opposite direction). Although most transfers clearly remain within ethnic blocs, these inter-ethnic terminal transfers are a change with the past and suggest that STV may be an appropriate electoral system choice for some divided societies.

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