Robert Keogh, an irregular contributor to the Slugger debate, now has his own blog. According to his initial extrapolations, the gap between the total number of people voting unionist over those voting nationalist narrowed to less than 50,000 in the European elections two years ago. This, Robert believes, means the end of Unionism is nigh. Although it is a view he moderates somewhat in the comments zone.The ‘rate of convergence’ in voting numbers has slowed considerably in recent years, which would suggest that, if other factors remain the same, future declination will be much slower than the steep curve of the 70s and 80’s. It would also be useful to probe what possible salient factors are conditioning the gap. Are we, for instance, simply witnessing differential patterns of voter engagement, rather than a active shift in base national loyalties?
Some estimate, for instance, that up to 150,000 extra voters of a Unionist background turned out for the referendum on the Belfast Agreement that generally do not vote in Northern Ireland’s perhaps over-regular elections. If even remotely true, it would seem the only way of achieving the kind of political union with the Republic is through a conversion of that non voting base.
A quick glance at the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey 2005 shows little thawing in what are very negative figures (3%, down from 5% in 2004) in positive attitudes amongst Protestants towards a future United Ireland. In contrast, 25% of Catholics wish to remain within the UK.
All of which explains why all NI’s parties spend little time or resources trying to prosleytise the ‘other side’. But it also serves up an important dilemma for Nationalists. It would appear, that without an increase in ‘political converts’ unification looks, for the moment at least, more of a thin chimera than a credible political aim.