“the task of the forensic historical psephologist is not an easy one”

A perennial ‘hot topic’ amongst Slugger’s more excitable commenters is the alleged demographic imperative.  At one point even some of the local political parties were endorsing what they regarded as the inevitable…

As a topic for discussion I find it neither enlightening, nor enlightened.  Culture and identity are not that simplistic.

I’ve previously noted Brendan O’Leary, from the University of Pennsylvania, speaking at the British-Irish Studies annual conference in Dublin, ahead of his appearance on the International Representative for west Belfast’s recent whistle-stop World Tour.

And, along with his predecessor, Bertie Ahern, current Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, has made his view clear.

“The genius of all of these agreements is that we are all on a common journey together where we have not decided on the destination. The problem with our ideologies in the past was that we had this idea about where we were going but we had no idea how anyone was going to come with us on the journey.

“We have now all decided: let’s go on a journey and forget about the destination – the destination isn’t really important in that respect. We can all work for what it is we would like ideally to see, but this is not something that can be forced or imposed upon people on either side of the island,” the Taoiseach [Brian Cowen] said.

But it’s always worth noting psephologist Nicholas Whyte’s thoughts on voting trends in the News Letter.

Seen from the vantage point of 2010, what looked 10 years ago like a sharp and possibly terminal decline for unionism now looks like the establishment of a new and stable pattern. The decline from 51.8 per cent of votes for unionist parties in 2005 to 50.5 per cent in 2010 is more than accounted for by the gains made by Alliance and smaller centre parties. European elections apart, the gap between Unionists and Nationalists has been steady at around 10 per cent since 1997.

The voters we don’t see: In this analysis I have left out the highest absolute vote for the Union in our electoral history. 591,820 voters came out and voted for Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom in the ‘Border Poll’ of 8 March 1973; 12,436 voted for a United Ireland or spoiled their ballot; and 425,828 stayed at home.

Three months later, in the election of the first Assembly, 447,085 voters (of a 722,191 turnout) supported unionist parties. Almost 150,000 of those who had voted in the referendum either voted for parties outside the unionist bloc for the Assembly, or else did not vote at all. (The combined votes of the Alliance Party and Northern Ireland Labour Party amounted to 85,000, which still leaves 65,000 unaccounted for.)

The fact is that the Union, as a constitutional arrangement, is more popular than unionism, as a political movement. This is borne out by successive opinion poll findings that between a quarter and a half of those who vote for nationalist parties (and the great majority of those who support centre parties) actually prefer the current arrangements to a United Ireland.

But they do not vote unionist, presumably because they do not see unionist parties as representing their interests in other, more important respects.

On that basis, my own prediction is that even if the margin between unionist and nationalist parties should slip still further in the decades to come (though I doubt that it will have changed much by 2021), the outcome of any referendum vote will remain securely on the pro-Union side, no matter how badly led unionism is in the future.

Read the whole thing.