How Nationalist turn out is turning Northern Ireland greener…

Nice piece from Ben Lowry in the Newsletter looking at the sectarian demography of Fermanagh South Tyrone and South Belfast in which he notes nationalist voter behaviour in seats previously seen as being unionist.

Remember when South Down and Newry and Armagh were actually held by unionists?

But now a mixture of demographic change — a gradually increasing Catholic vote — and an increase in Catholic confidence has made those seats so safe for nationalists that it is hard to remember they were anything else.

Yes, there are other explanations for this change, such as marginal boundary changes. But the main reason has been a much higher nationalist turnout.

Look at how the nationalist vote in South Down soared between 1983, when the SDLP began to come close to winning, to 1992, five years after they first won.

• 1983 24,219 nationalist votes
• 1986 by-election (when they nearly won) 26,057
• 1987 (when the SDLP first won) 28,942
• 1992 (first poll after SDLP had won) 33,336

There was no boundary change over this period — it was all due to nationalists coming out in much larger numbers when they saw they could win.

This poses problems for seats such as South Belfast. The arithmetics there favours unionists: 16,387 to 13,221 in 2005.

But even there it is not clear-cut, because the Catholic middle class keeps growing, and some nationalists who did not vote in the past — wrongly thinking it a hopeless cause — will do so now that Alasdair McDonnell has shown it can be won.

Soon unionists will face a problem for North Belfast, which has moved greener too — 2005 headcount 16,089 unionists against 13,697.

All of these kind of presumes future growth patterns similar to those of the recent past… As we have seen, calls to the sectarian base (ie don’t let Sinn Fein top the European poll) have failed spectacularly for the DUP in recent times… Yet there is no reason to presume against a consolidation of this nature in South Belfast…

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  • Chris Donnelly

    There were historical reasons for that lower turnout which affected nationalist voting patterns. In most areas of the North, this has been addressed and nationalist voting behaviour matches and, at times, exceeds that of unionists at a whole state and specific constituency level.

    Interestingly, from my work in Lagan Valley and elsewhere, it has become evident to me that the absence of credible nationalist candidates in majority unionist constituencies continues to depreciate the nationalist turnout. Just look at the massive leap in nationalist turnout in that constituency from 97 on to 2007, far exceeding the electoral changes anticipated due to new builds and demographic shifts. This is even more evident at local government level, where there is far too often no nationalist candidates (or simply ones of the card variety) to motivate the vote to turn out in many DEAs.

    Therefore the key constituencies for nationalist growth in the coming five years will be East Antrim and Strangford. In other constituencies the nationalist vote has, for the most part, been incentivised to turn out through electoral activity by the two nationalist parties since the early 90s.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Mick, remember up until the hunger strike the republican tradition had been to boycott elections in the north, therfore it probably took some time for that tradition to end completely, I think that it has probably reached its peak, the Euros did have a slight fall in nationalist vote, despite the fact that the expenses scandal should have hit them less, it shall be interesting to see what happens this time, and could be the most interesting part of the election here for the true political anoraks.

  • Chris Donnelly


    You’re right with what you’re saying, though as I pointed out, the peak has yet to be reached in majority unionist constituencies where nationalist parties have yet to deliver effective representation.

    Regarding this election, I’d expect a higher turnout in unionist communities given that the electoral competition between a wounded DUP, bewildered UCUNF and boorish TUV has made results in majority unionist constituencies far less certain than those in SF/ SDLP held seats (the two possible unity candidate constituencies of FST/ SB excepted.)

  • padraig

    It may be a foolish question but haven’t Sinn Fein a chance in North Belfast a good chance to win,given the increased Nationalist vote…especially if there is a TUV spoiler?

  • Drumlins Rock

    long shot padriag, Dodds is very strong, SDLP would have to withdraw to get close at all, and in that case even if Cobain still stood most of his vote would go to Dodds just to be sure. I think even with that slim chance it is enough for the TUV to sit that one out, doubt it would be a strong area for them anyways.

  • Free State Barsteward

    TUV will not run here. While NB is an outside shot for SF. With TUV intervention, it would become a distinct possibility

  • Drumlins Rock

    back to the main point, I think over the years we have seen the Nationalist vote rise to closer reflect the proportion of the population that hold that view, and I would probably say overall exceeds it, in that turnout in overall Nationalist areas is much higher than in strong unionist areas, I would stick my neck out and say we will start to see that change and even out with higher turnouts in more marginal areas and those areas where demographic changes are taking place. So we had the rare event of the total unionist percentage of vote actually increasing at the Euro election, be it on a very low poll, was it a blip or is it a sign of the steady nationalist vote hitting a peak?

  • ardmaj55

    Mick. This is going to be an increasing problem for Unionist Parties, because, as you say the flow is now in most parts of the North, with Nationalists and the ebb is on the Unionist side. I remember during an election campaign in the eighties, watching John Taylor on a forum, complaining about Unionist voters who just stayed at home, especially in the safe Unionist seats.
    For me, the Sth Belfast seat isn’t a Nats natural majority, so if the nats parties have a pact there, that will be sectarian and anti democratic. The demographic is the reverse in Fermanagh so the Unionist pact there IS, in my view sectarian, and if the nats voters there decide to lend their votes to SF, that isn’t necessarily sectarian, but if nats parties do this, that probably can be called sectarian.
    The mirror opposite applies for unionists response to any nats pact in sth Belfast.
    I hope that’s clear.

  • ardmaj55

    Drumlins Rock. It is ironic that at the very point when the demographics in NI flip over so that a referendum could conceivably produce a close result if held at the centenary of Partition, there won’t, at that juncture, be any need for nationalists to vote to end the state since the Unionists will no longer control NI even at council level, so they will be happy enough . This is where Unionist politicians miss the point in baiting nats that ulster is still British. It wasn’t the problem for nats, that Britain had possession in 1968 or now, it was the way NI was run that they objected to.
    In fact, another irony, it’s unionists who hate the English rather than nats, because they know they’re not wanted in the UK. Nationalists have no such hang ups.

  • Kevin Barry

    I could be completely wrong on this score but I think Nationalist voters view Westminster elections slightly different to Unionists; where with Unionists almost seem to have a willingness to kill each other at the polls and gain a victory even with the danger of splitting the vote and allowing their mortal enemy to win, Nationalists on the other hand know that they have little or no influence in what goes on at Westminster and would not want something like the shade of green get in the way of defeating Unionism.

    Take for instance SB; I would be interested to see if McDonnell’s vote increases and SF’s decreases. I am near certain that this will be the case.

    Of course, someone will point out the SDLP’s fielding of Ferghal McKinney in FST as running counter to what I have said and I would agree, however, IN GENERAL it would seem that while no pact exists each party would be loath to scupper the chances of a Nationalist victory.

  • ardmaj55

    Kevin Barry…. as another poster here once put it, Westminster seats give unionists only bragging rights. there’s negligible influence in being able to stand up at PMQs and ask questions, when the reply from the PM can’t be challenged a second time from the same member. SF aren’t missing anything by not attending and their voters don’t have a problem with their SF MP not being there. It’s at Stormont where the real power now lies.

  • LabourNIman

    TUV stand in NB? would take Allister 10 years to even get 1000 votes. Thankfully come 2012 the party will be gone anyway.

  • Kevin Barry


    I couldn’t agree with you more and regardless of what David Cameron says NI politicians have as much sway in Westminster as some one from Guernsey

  • What is interesting is that noone has bothered to actually do the sums to compare the turnout rate between Nationalists and Unionists although the figures are avaialble, or if they have where the feck are they? though I say that at 2.10 in the morning having been on the screaming pop, gulp.

  • ardmaj55

    Kevin Barry [13] There an hilarious post over on DCR[I’m sure you’re aware of that yuku board, where it’s chief blogger, came out withthis gem in advising Nationalists to vote SF and [through their abstentionist stance] LOSE INFLUENCE in Westminster. And this after the NIO and Whitehall helped them get P&J over the line, and browbeating ROBBO and his abominable snowmen into abject surrender. No wonder Robbo is in a constant rage.

  • PaddyReilly

    is it the SDLP’s position?

    The SDLP is not a one issue party, but if it fails to take note that others are playing the one issue card and act correspondingly, it may, in the absence of elected members, cease to be any sort of effective party.

  • ardmaj55

    PaddyReilly, [16] So, it’s Hobson’s Choice for the SDLP? They get to choose between survival and in the process be accused of sectarian stitchup, or being sunk.