Constitutional uncoupling, or the decline in support for Nationalist parties amongst the Catholic community of Northern Ireland

Unmistakeably one of the main stories of the 2016 Assembly election has been the sharp drop in the share of the vote of Sinn Féin and the SDLP, which has fallen 3.6% since the 2015 General Election and 5.6% from the 41.2% combined share that they polled at the previous Assembly election in 2011. This is certainly a very disappointing result for those in favour of Irish unity, especially amongst those who had hoped that the centenary of the Easter Rising might have provided a boost to the electoral fortunes of Nationalist and Republican parties.

The poor performance of the Nationalist parties is a continuation of a trend that has become increasingly obvious over the last few electoral cycles; members of the Catholic community do not vote for Nationalist parties to anything like the extent that they used to. Whilst the Catholic population has increased steadily, support for Nationalist parties has declined. The chart below shows extrapolated figures for the adult Catholic population compared to the number of votes received by the SDLP and Sinn Féin.

Catholic Population & SF SDLP Vote

Granted, the trend in electoral turnout has been steadily negative since 2001, but when the Nationalist vote as a percentage of the Catholic population is compared with overall electoral turnout, the extent to which Nationalist support has stagnated compared to overall turnout becomes very apparent.

Catholic Population & SF SDLP Vote Turnout

The decline in support for Nationalist parties amongst the Catholic electorate could be attributed to a number of factors, but a key reason is that in recent years Catholic voters are significantly less keen on Irish unity than they have been previously. The chart below, sourced from the Northern Ireland Social Attitudes (NISA) Survey from 1989 -1996 and the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey since 1998, shows how support for a United Ireland has changed since the late eighties.

Catholic UI Support

From 1989 until 2006, support for Irish unity amongst Catholics oscillated between 45% and 60%, but it was the period of sustained devolution and relative stability following the St Andrew’s Agreement that saw a precipitous decline in support for Irish unity amongst the community, falling from a 56% in 2006 to 30% in 2010, where it appears to have stabilised. The decline in support for Sinn Féin and the SDLP has happened over the same time period that support for Irish unity amongst the Catholic community has essentially halved.

The dramatic change in sentiment on constitutional issues is particularly striking when the attitudes of supporters of the Nationalist parties are analysed. After the suspension of Stormont in 2002, support for a United Ireland amongst Sinn Féin voters was just under 90%.

SF SDLP UI Support

Support for a UI amongst SF voters has fallen from 84% in 2006 to 42% in 2014. The NILT data suggests that those who want Irish unity, in the long term, now constitute a minority amongst Sinn Féin voters.

The dilemma facing Nationalist parties couldn’t be more stark. If the Catholic community voted as consistently for Nationalist parties in 2016, and supported Irish unity, to the same extent that they did in 2001, then the SDLP and Sinn Féin would have received nearly double the amount of votes that they actually received in 2016. There would be a strong possibility of a Nationalist majority in the Assembly, and Northern Ireland could well have joined Scotland in the United Kingdom’s departure lounge.

The Catholic community are no longer buying what Sinn Féin and the SDLP are selling on constitutional matters. Something seriously dramatic would need to take place to transform their outlook from the current general contentment with the status quo.

Such as, for instance, Northern Ireland leaving the European Union whilst the Republic stays in.

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