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.

, ,

  • I was horribly late for this #VotersFirst seminar, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying the (veggie for me) lunch, Tweeting and Twit-pic-ing, and networking happily with guests… so thanks, Alan, for filling in all the gaps – you should come to every seminar about and deliver this excellent service more widely!

  • Neil

    A couple of things in response. It’s pretty hard to extrapolate from limited data, given the Assembly is four governments old. And you could probably read the figures as he has done, but you could also read them very differently, and apply what seems like an obvious narrative to the voting patterns.

    The UUP took a hammering after 98. Over what will be 8 years of government at the next election the UUP/DUP balance will have shifted by two seats, so hardly a massive swing there.

    Over the period of 98 – 11 the DUP increased their vote by a total of eighteen seats, while the UUP will have lost ten. Over on the other side of the fence SF have increased their vote by 11 seats while the SDLP will have lost 12. So again hardly the stability suggested by nationalists consistently voting for the party of their ethnic identity – surely the consistency would have been there all along – nor the instability that would suggest Unionists regularly swapping parties.

    So both Unionists and Nationalists have actually matched each other fairly well in the number of seats changing hands and we all know why. The Shinners did well when the IRA was wound up. The UUP got punished for making concessions to do a deal. The SDLP and SF have very similar policies as do the DUP and UUP.

    Then you have this ‘rewarding performance’ thing. I’d be curious as to who thought who in SF or the DUP have performed particularly well throughout. Maybe one or two who are more or less ok on both sides and the rest are at best glorified bean counters.

  • sherdy

    I didn’t realise we were so sophisticated in our political thinking.

  • Toastedpuffin

    A very interesting piece. I suspect that there’s a degree of trying to find something interesting to say, but nonetheless it’s intriguing. As a Unionist who has tended to vote for the SDLP (not any more though!), I’ve found it mucher harder to find Nationalists who show the same flexibility of voting behaviour. I know a few Unionists (some quite, ahem, “staunch”) who’d think nothing of voting for the SDLP, and not just tactically. I’ve maybe one Nationalist friend who’d even consider voting for a Unionist party. The idea seems very much more alien to Nationalists that it is to Unionists.

    I generalise, of course, but it strikes me that nationalists identify much more strongly with a political party than do Unionists – they’re very much like Unionists used to be, 30 or 40 years ago.

  • Quintin – I arrived even later than you and didn’t eat a bite! For a small sizeable sum, I’ll attend any event you want to skip and report back!

  • Charlie Sheens PR guru

    That analysis sounds even stupider on the day that unionists present a ‘unity’ candidate:


    You couldn’t make it up..

  • Comrade Stalin

    Apparently John McAllister has resigned from the UUP.

  • Obelisk

    “Apparently John McAllister has resigned from the UUP.”

    Will he be a lone voice on the fringe now, doomed to lose his seat at the next election, or will this trigger the final schism within the UUP?

    What will Basil do? Surely if there was a moment for him to jump and try that Liberal party he’s dreamed of then this is it.

    If Basil doesn’t move now then I would say there is nothing behind all his fancy words and talk and he lacks the courage of his convictions. McAllister recognises that his brand of politics has no future in the UUP. If Basil is cut from the same cloth he must surely draw the same conclusion?

  • Progressive Unionist

    Well done John for having the courage of his convictions. Hopefully he won’t be ‘going it alone’ as an independent for too long and that this will catalyse the formation of a new forward-thinking unionist group…

  • ayeYerMa

    Not that any of this academic evidence from Dr. Garry will stop the likes of David Ford, and his supporters writing in the Belfast Telegraph, from trying to slur a vote for a constitutional party as being “tribal”.

    His opinion on the asymmetry should also be brought up every time we hear moaning about “DUP and Sinn Fein”.

  • SK

    “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.”- Dr Garry.


    “”The DUP Mid-Ulster and UUP Mid-Ulster associations met separately on Thursday night and unanimously endorsed Mr Lutton.

    Victims campaigner Willie Frazer told the News Letter that he will not run against Mr Lutton. Ulster Protestant Forum leader Jamie Bryson also said he will not be running in the by-election.” – Belfast Newsletter.

    Back to the drawing board, doctor.

  • Comment thread edited.

  • I’m very skeptical about Prof. McGarry’s conclusions regarding unionists. I think that unionist politics is every bit as driven by identity politics as is nationalist politics. For decades the backbone of the DUP were Free Presbyterian Church members in rural areas and loyalist voters in urban areas who refused to vote for the socialist parties that the loyalist paramilitaries put up. Then in 1998 there started a major flow or leakage of voters from the UUP to the DUP over the latter’s support for the GFA and the lack of decommissioning. Among nationalists many who defected to the Shinners after 1998, particularly after 2001 where “sneaking regarders” who wouldn’t vote for SF as long as the IRA were actively blowing up things and people but thought that they should be post facto rewarded for it because of the sacrifices they made for a United Ireland.

    Since voting is as much an emotional act as a rational one this is to be expected. Both the SF and the DUP play politics with the flag in order to rev up their respective electorates and make them either think that they’ve won a great victory against the Brits or that the union is in danger.

  • David Crookes

    Brilliant, tmitch57: “…..voting is as much an emotional act as a rational one…..”. Clever rational commentators with plenty of time on their hands often forget that fact. Some of the really clever ones are not overburdened with viscerality, but most of us have our full quota.

  • aquifer

    So some increased transparency will be needed if politicians in our communal cabinet are to be held to account.

    Where are they spending the money?

  • FuturePhysicist

    “Now the converse is true in the unionist block…but there is some evidence of the performance based accountability doing some work.”

    ad hominem and a priori reasoning … with nothing to back it up. Also why wasn’t the APNI analysed?