The Northern Ireland Office has announced that the substitute system for the Assembly, whereby an MLA who left office was replaced by someone from an effectively secret list of names handed to the Electoral Office at the time they submitted their candidacy, is to be replaced by one which will see a departing MLA replaced by a person put forward by the Nominating Officer of the party to which the MLA belonged when they were elected.
The new procedures announced by the NIO, which are coming in under the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2009, will mean that the problem faced when Michael Ferguson died, for instance, will be avoided- no one on his substitute list could take up his seat, thus leaving it vacant for the remainder of the term.
It will also mean that if a person quits a party and then leaves office, they will be replaced by someone from their erstwhile party. So if Gerry McHugh, who was elected as a Sinn Féin representative but has since gone Independent, died or left office, he would be replaced by a Sinn Féiner. However, for MLAs who were elected on an Independent ticket in the first place, the list system will remain in place as they naturally have no party from which a replacement can be sourced.
According to Paul Goggins: "There was general agreement that the previous system for filling vacancies required reform and the new system provided for in the Order was widely supported during the public consultation. I am pleased therefore that Parliament has approved this change and that the system is now fully in force."
Although it isn't quite the same as a bye-election, this change does perhaps bring about a bit more accountability. Parties can't exactly blame departing MLAs for submitting rogue lists- they have to pick the replacements now themselves. However, I'm guessing that people who decide to quit their parties after being elected won't be too happy- after all, they might argue that it is MLAs that people elect, not parties. Nonetheless, that is how the system works as of this week.