Constitutional recoupling – the rise in the Nationalist vote in context

The increase in the Nationalist vote at last week’s Assembly Election came as a surprise to many commentators. However, it is worth bearing in mind that support for the SDLP and Sinn Féin amongst the Catholic population of Northern Ireland was at a historic low in 2016, and therefore the increase in the Nationalist vote was starting from a low base.

After last year’s Assembly election, I wrote about how the support for the SDLP and Sinn Féin amongst Northern Ireland Catholics had fallen to less than 40%, from 74% in 2001. I have updated the chart following this year’s election, and whilst there has been a noticeable rebound in Nationalist party support amongst Catholics, it is still significantly lower than it was throughout the last decade.

At 46.7%, the Nationalist share of the Catholic vote is down from the 47.8% share from the Westminster Election in 2010, when Sinn Féin won the popular vote and the SDLP came third. Overall turnout in 2017 was the highest since the 2001 General Election. In 2001 the two Nationalist parties polled over 345,000 votes; a higher number in absolute terms than they polled at last week’s elections, even though they only won seven of the 18 available seats.

The questions remain; is there still a large untapped pool of unused Nationalist votes available to Sinn Féin and the SDLP, and if there was, how would this impact seat totals in the Assembly? It would appear highly unlikely that Nationalist support amongst Catholics would reach anywhere near 2001 levels even in the medium term.

The Alliance Party, for one, received a large increase in votes between 2016 and 2017, and it is clear that many of these additional voters are drawn from the Catholic community. In any case, even if there was a further uptick in Nationalist support at a future Assembly election, there are few seats currently held by Unionists where it would be straightforward for a Nationalist to win, even if there were to be an increase in the Nationalist vote.

The following table shows the number of first preference votes received by Nationalists at the 2017 Assembly Election (apologies if I have missed out any Independents), compared with the quota in each seat and the number of seats that Sinn Féin and the SDLP jointly won.

Even though Nationalists jointly received 42 quotas, there are few constituencies where a modest increase in the Nationalist vote would win an additional seat. Strangford, and the three constituencies in Antrim, are potential targets, although none of these would be easy.

Elsewhere, there are limited opportunities. For example, in areas such as West Tyrone and South Down, Nationalists already hold four of the seats on less than four quotas, and given that there will always be (at least) one Unionist elected in these constituencies, this means that there is no potential to advance.

There is ample room for an increase in the Nationalist vote in future electoral cycles. However, in terms of Assembly seats, the SDLP and Sinn Féin have basically maxed out their position in terms of their current support.

Boundary changes will have an impact, of course, but under the current electoral map it would require a very dramatic increase in the Nationalist vote if there was to be any increase in the number of Nationalist seats at Stormont. There are also few constituencies in which the pendulum is likely to swing noticeably the other way, where Nationalist seats could be won by a Unionist.

In summary; no more elections this year, please. Ulster has suffered enough.