Unionist voters exercising performance-based accountability while nationalists vote along ethno-national indicators

QUB’s Dr John Garry spoke at this morning’s Putting Voters First: Transparency and openness in the electoral and democratic process in Northern Ireland event organised by the Electoral Commission.


Afterwards he explained to me how the current political structures challenges some voters:

It’s a challenge for voters to figure out which particular party in [the coalition] government is responsible for what. After all, in most “normal” democracies there’s a government and an opposition and a normal understanding of democracy is if you don’t like the way the world is going, you blame the government, you throw it out and you put in a different government. But in a situation where all parties are in government you can’t do that. So what you then have to try and do is say I will reward the particular part of the governing jigsaw that performed well.

Voters in Northern Ireland’s “multi-party, multi-level context” also have determine which issues fall under the responsibility of their devolved NI government, and which are in the remit of local government, Westminster, the European Union, or others.

Within unionism, Dr John Garry sees evidence of voters evaluating the performance of the Executive and attributing relative responsibility to the party – DUP or UUP – they then reward or punish at the ballot box. He concludes that “there is political accountability operating at some level”.

However, the same is not true of nationalist voters and parties.

I couldn’t find evidence of performance-based accountability operating in the nationalist block. So people who choose between Sinn Fein and the SDLP, certainly they had evaluations of how life has got better or worse, but that didn’t determine how they voted. One of the big predictors always for Sinn Fein and the SDLP are the basic ethno-national indicators: national identity (whether you’re Northern Irish or Irish) and constitutional preferences (whether you want a United Ireland or not).

So Sinn Fein attract votes from Catholics who want a United Ireland and from Catholics who perceive themselves to be Irish. SDLP attract votes from Catholics who quite like the status quo devolved power sharing Assembly and who see themselves as Northern Irish rather than Irish. Those ethno-national indicators do some work in terms of predicting choice. And the performance-based political accountability stuff doesn’t do any work.

Now the converse is true in the unionist block. The ethno-national indicators that I’ve just mentioned – constitutional preferences and national identity – they don’t do any work but there is some evidence of the performance based accountability doing some work.

Despite the fact that we use the same label of “hard line parties” to describe both the DUP and Sinn Fein, Dr John Garry comments that “Northern Ireland electoral behaviour is very asymmetrical” and that “the difference between Sinn Fein and the SDLP is always so much greater than the difference between the DUP and the UUP”.

The seminar will cover a number of topics including falling turnout at elections, a declining interest in politics, the health of the electoral register, the lack of transparency surrounding the funding of political parties as well as looking at what is being done to engage with voters in Northern Ireland.

Other speakers at the event included:

  • Mike Penning, NIO Minister of State
  • Anna Carragher, Electoral Commissioner for Northern Ireland (audio interview)
  • Graham Shields, Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland
  • James Orr, Director of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland (audio interview)
  • John Stewart, Director of Information and Outreach at the Northern Ireland Assembly

James Orr spoke to me about his desire to see improvements to the transparency of political party funding, a subject which is now being taken up by the Northern Ireland Select Committee at Westminster.

You can also read back through the tweets from the event … the Storify embed isn’t working, so you’ll have to click through to read.

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