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.

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  • Gerry Lynch

    Great piece of work, Peter. Thank you.

  • Croiteir

    Note the gap between nationalist vote and Catholic population. This is primarily due to Catholics being turned off due to the continuous wittering on by the SDLP and SF for social liberal policies which alienate, perhaps a new political party which reflects this demograph would help maximise the nationalist vote by incentivising Catholic nationalists like me who do not vote would helpful. I do not see this happening – it is simply too difficult to start a new party.

  • Granni Trixie

    Now could you specify what you are referring to as “difficult”?

  • Croiteir

    Starting a new political party

  • Brendan Heading

    several conservative Catholic candidates ran for election. Susan Ann White, for example.

  • Croiteir

    I did not know she was Catholic, but so what? had they a party tent around them?

  • Jack fotheringham

    She aint catholic.

  • burnboilerburn

    The second graph is incorrect. It suggests the adult Catholic population is approx 690,000. That is wrong. The figure is closer to 635,000.

    While I am at it, the extrapolated adult protestant population is still quite a bit higher at 750,000.

    The current total Adult population of all residents is approx 1417000
    that breaks down at 53% PCB and 45% CCB.

    Back in 2011 at the time of the census the figures were 55% PCB and 43.5% CCB

    This suggests that if current trends continue

    2021 – 51% PCB and 49.5% CCB
    2026 – 49% PCB and 51% CCB

    Whilst there now exists a Catholic Plurality in the entire population, sometime between the years 2024 and 2026 Catholics will be the majority voting population.

  • Ciarán Doherty

    “Social liberal policies which alienate”… Yeah I’m sure that people aren’t voting for nationalist parties because they want some of that sweet sweet DUP 19th Century bigotry.

  • Bobbell

    I think it much more likely that apathy is behind this rather than principled religious conservatism or (as has been suggested) refusal to take part in partitioned elections.

  • Bobbell

    Do any socially conservative parties run with any success in the south?

  • NMS

    Excellent piece. How will the reduction in constituency numbers, which I understand, will main involve changes in the Belfast area?

    Looking at the recent results, two “Nationalist” seats sit as Alliance targets, North Belfast & South Down, suggesting that it may not even be possible to repeat the current performance.

    A redrawing may also start to persuade more “unionist” voters to turn out to protect seats. There is a difference of 46.7% in size of quota between solidly anti-nationalist, East Antrim & rabidly anti-unionist Newry & Armagh.

    Also there is no guarantee that SDLP voters will not transfer to strong Alliance or other candidates, where that option is available.

  • NMS

    Fianna Fáil.

  • Croiteir

    hardly – they just do not want to be supportive of the anti-Catholic policies of SF and the SDLP.

  • Croiteir

    Did you not notice the vote in the Dail yesterday?

  • Ryan A

    She aint on the same planet.

  • Croiteir

    I feel that there is a number of reasons, however the liberals like to imagine that there ae no conservatives out there, and even if they do they try to present them as a tiny minority, that is false.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Peter, the line for the adult Catholic population seems too steep – is your starting point figure in 2001 definitely right, shouldn’t it be higher? The chart seems to indicate a rise from about 475,000 adult Catholics in 2001 to just under 700,000 in 2017 – a rise of 47 per cent in 16 years (!). The latter figure looks right to me, it’s the 2001 figure that seems artificially low. Can you confirm you have that right?

    But apart from that, really interesting analysis – thanks!

  • Roger

    South…Cork, Kerry…Healy-Rae party…if not conservative, backward at least.

  • Roger

    Rise in population who say they are Northern Irish is what I think it is.
    The happy contented UK people aren’t into sectarian UKNI politics.

  • DanCan

    Isnt there a projected increase in the Catholic voting population during the years ahead due to a higher, younger ‘coming of age’ headcount?

    I recall an article on this from a while ago, likely a census analysis, but cant locate it.

  • Fear Éireannach

    The trend line above is rather simplistic and not especially helpful to the analysis. it should be possible to compare the death rate and the proportion of Protestants in that age group with the birth rate around 2000 and the proportions in that group. It was suggested elsewhere on Slugger that there are 4000-5000 more Catholic voters each year, which would mean it would take 20-25 years for 100,000 more, not the 8-10 years suggested above.

    However, turnout could still increase by 10%. In seats like Strangford there might be some votes who switch from Alliance first preference to SDLP once they see the SDLP in with a chance. But presumably the new constituencies will require a new calculation. The differential quotes above not only reflect turnout but also population differences. You now need more voters in Newry and Armagh to get a seat than in East Antrim, when this is adjusted the change will allow nationalists get a seat with less voters and will require more of Antrim unionists.

  • Gingray

    Before the last census was selecting Northern Irish an option? Not sure there is that big a rise, and if you look at the census you will also see that self describing as Irish is very much a young catholic thing.

    Essentially, older Catholics in NI who had been told repeatedly by the state they are not Irish, label as Northern Irish, and younger Catholics, who have been told they are Irish, have no issue with it.

  • salmonofdata

    Thanks, good spot, I hadn’t counted 18 & 19 year olds from 2001, so the extrapolated figures for 2017 are too high by a few tens of thousands.

  • Skibo

    Rodger the Northern Irish tag can have two outlooks.
    1) NI Nationalist, comfortable in their Irishness but accepting that at the moment that British rule exists, rightly or wrongly.
    2) NI unionists, comfortable in their Britishness enough to accept they live on the island of Ireland.
    I believe both parties will be open to discussions on reunification if an economical plan can be agreed.

  • Gingray

    NMS, turnout rate for Unionist and Nationalist voters is about even – this election was merely a leveling out, not a Nationalist over performance.

    If you apply turnout by age rates to the 2001 census figures for 13 and older, catholic voters would make up 43%, Protestant 50% and Other 7%. Turnout by age is incredibly important, and something Salmon has missed here, which is a pity.

    Nationalism actually has a lot of room for growth – there are several constituencies in the east (East Belfast, North Down, Strangford) which have 35k eligible catholic voters, yet SF and the SDLP only managed 7k votes between them. Alliance gets the bulk of those votes, which may change as constituencies are altered – Strangford for example gets more Catholic, and East Belfast merges into South, making a viable SF or SDLP candidate a runner.

  • David

    Why on earth would anyone support a pro-Catholic church party? Its treatment of Irish children and women alone render them absolutely toxic for the foreseeable future, if not permanently.

  • Gingray

    You can break it down by religion brought up in and age with the census data – really interesting trends, geographically and age wise.

  • Gingray

    Peter – good job, a few things I think will need looked at in future:

    Voting by age – the EU Ref provided good detail, showing a 20% differential in turnout for over 60s versus under 60s. This would have a massive impact given the demographic breakdown in NI.

    Transfer friendliness – big bit of work, but would be interesting to see what sort of rates parties transferred to one another. Alliance and SDLP seem to cross transfer reasonably highly, as do the DUP and TUV. SF not so much.

  • Deeman

    Has anyone analysed the turnout in catholic working class traditional hardline republican areas such as Lurgan, Newry, Coalisland, West Belfast, Derry etc. There must be thousands of republican votes in there who hate SF and their Peace Strategy. How you can convince these peopel to vote for SF/SDLP or even engage in the democratic process is beyond me. I would be interested to know numbers though.

  • hollandia

    One thing that is not discussed, is the increase in tactical voting in non winnable constituencies. It’s no longer a vote for someone, it’s, in a lot of cases, a vote against someone. Cases in point being Danny Kinahan in South Antrim, and Naomi Long in EB (which also carried into the assembly elections). I’ve no doubt that the reverse of this happens too. Also, factor in PBP (where ostensibly socialism is more important than the constitutional issue, and Green (environment v constitution). It doesn’t mean that the voters of those two parties don’t have an opinion on the constitutional question – more that they don’t think it’s important than that parties prime message.

  • Catholic and protestant headcounts are becoming increasingly useless as a way of measuring the likelihood of electoral success as indicated by the graphs above. Polish, Lithuaninan, East Timorese, and Philipinos tend to be staunchly catholic, and are making up an increasing segment of the population. They also have younger age profiles. Although they only make up a few percentage points of the overall population, they are likely to make up a not insignificant proportion of newer voting age catholics

    On the other side of the equation, the latest waves of migration to NI are coming from Africa, and a stroll down Royal Avenue on a Saturday afternoon indicates their evangelic leanings. Also a big rise in Indians, Romanians and Bulgarians who identify as neither. The point being that migration in the previous decade added significantly to the Catholic population, whereas migration this decade looks to be adding to the non-Catholic population.

    The religion of these people knocks the entire idea of religious headcounting for the purposes of fantasising about Irish unity, as Philipinos are unlikely to be parading to Milltown cemetery, and Nigerians are unlikely to be parading around Derry’s walls.

  • Croiteir

    Why would they not? No matter how inadequate that was it was better than what society offered.

  • David

    Industrial level child rape and cover-ups, sadistic behaviour in schools, imprisonment and endemic abuse in laundries, child trafficking, callous dumping of multiple child corpses in highly dubious circumstances, failure to pay adequate restitution despite enormous wealth?

    That’s just for starters. You’re seriously suggesting that society would have treated the most vulnerable in such a manner, or indeed been allowed to get away with it?

  • Jimmy

    SDLP have been under 500 votes away in pretty much every election in Strangford. Yet the Alliance vote is only increasing.

  • Jimmy

    I think the order of the election is key especially in the new East (South) Belfast constituency. If UK General Election comes first, Alliance assert the fact that a Nationalist cant win and Alliance is the only way to unseat a DUP. If Assembly election comes first, the vote could become more fragmented. It is important to note that there are 2 Alliance seats that are safe, two DUP seats are safe. I’m not really sure there would be room for a nationalist there.

  • Gingray

    For the proposed Belfast South East, 5 Dundonald wards will be removed with 7 wards added from
    South Belfast. This increased voting age Catholic population will be near 27% by 2020.

    Nationalists should be just under a quota with Alliance likely to have 2 and a bit, and the Greens in the running too. Unionism around 2 on the button. Will make for a very close fight for the last seat.

  • Jimmy

    I didn’t realise that Dundonald was being removed. Apologies. That does change things quite a bit. However I still don’t see it happening. It depends on the candidates, really nationalism needs a big name to have a chance. Due to the lack of transfers I cant see Sinn Fein winning and Claire Hanna will likely stand in Belfast SW. No other high profile nationalists. Would Alliance risk 3 candidates?

  • Jimmy

    Many people need to remember that many people of a Catholic Background are in mixed marriages with those of a Protestant Tradition or may have close family/friends who are of a different background. This will lessen the dent of changing demographics. However the census changes will have a massive impact on NI

  • Roger

    It won’t happen if it’s not in people’s gut.

    Scotland ought to have reminded you of that.

  • Croiteir

    You are talking about different things. I would have no problem voting for a party that reflects Catholic social teaching. Now if you want to talk about the rights and wrongs of what happened in the past I am more than willing to do so.

    What happened in both Catholic and Protestant run institutions was no more than a refection of the society in which they operated, if the state was running those orphanages do you seriously think that the outcome would be better?

  • David

    Yes I do, not to mention the fact that the Catholic church are a supposedly religious institution predicated on the teachings, example and compassion of Christ, hence higher or indeed even basic standards of humanity would be expected.

    Attempting to excuse mass paedophilia and endemic abuse of women and children by an obscenely wealthy and corrupt organisation really does beggar belief. The Catholic church long ago forfeited any right to pronounce on moral issues of any kind.

  • Croiteir

    Well I and plenty of others don’t.

    And the mass paedophilia you talk about was practiced by no bigger a percentage of the ordained priests than you would find in any other comparable cohort in society.

    I do not excuse anything, you confuse excuse and explain.

    Obscenely wealthy? the McAleese report into the Magdalene laundries show that the Church ran them at a loss, the state did not provide for the people abandoned by state and family in them, how do you suggest they would be fed?

    If you wish to point a finger at the society that abandoned its daughters to the streets then do so, do not blame the Church, they were all that was left.

    And by the way – you avoid the deaths in the Protestant orphanages – why was that?

  • David

    The damage done by the ‘percentage’ of paedophile priests was greatly magnified by the policy of the hierarchy to move them all round the country / globe so they had a greater variety of rape victims. It was blatantly obvious this would happen, yet the ‘men’ (I use the term loosely) in charge preferred to label children as liars, deny everything and at best transfer the rapist somewhere else.

    The church was and remains obscenely wealthy, regardless of any choice they may have made to underfund such prison camp projects as the laundries.

    How many nuns, priests and bishops died mysteriously and were dumped in septic tanks? Or was it just ‘undesirable’ children? Was there an outcry from the Catholic church at the time that hundreds of children were dying on their premises for lack of state funding? Or did the churches representatives simply regard these children as disposable? Why were ‘illegitimate’ babies taken from their mothers and literally trafficked by the church, with mothers often being told they had died? Again I’m only skimming the surface of the suffering caused.

    Similar abuse and criminal behaviour is no more defensible in protestant orphanages than catholic ones. This is not a matter of denomination. However, given the power, wealth, influence, trust and supposed standing of the Catholic church in Ireland for most of the last century, it might be reasonably expected that they would treat the most vulnerable in society with even basic humanity. To be honest I’m amazed that anyone is even trying to defend this.

  • Croiteir

    Again this is nothing to do, unless tenuously with a party based on Catholic social policy, which is not unusual in Europe.

    But since you remain fixated on child abuse we will discuss it. Yes it was made worse by that policy, a policy that was consistent with the advice of psychiatry at the time, they should have been kicked out. It was also clear that the children were treated differently according to who they talked to. Sometimes even their parents did not take them seriously. But you need to put that is context of a time that to have tis happen was embarrassing and was to be covered up. But of course you don’t want to take cultural context into it, that would ruin the story.

    No one was dumped into a septic tank, at least one that was working. So the answer, if you are interested in facts and not hysteria, is no-one.

    There was correspondence asking for money but the state had not got it, so the Church asked the people for support. It was well known at the time, even I remember taking money to school to contribute.

    The Church was intructed that this was state policy, happened in England too, in order to give the a better life chances abroad, in fact children were shipped around the world by parents, my own great uncle was put on te boat for America when he was 2 with no-one there to meet him. There is context for you.

    To be honest I am amazed that someone cannot see that this was the society at the time, it seems that some just want to Church bash without taking an overview of the society as was. That is called bias.

  • David

    To be honest Croiteir, I can’t discuss this with you any longer. I have family members who have suffered greatly in the past at the hands of the Irish Catholic church. I have heard and read accounts that would make anyone sick to their stomach and they’re by no means isolated incidents. Rape, abuse, contempt, greed, hypocrisy barely begin to describe this organisation.

    It’s your right to make excuses for them if you wish, but at the end of the day you’re only fooling yourself. Good luck to you.

  • Croiteir

    Then why start the discussion – talk the mirror if you like.

  • GS

    Posted this recently on a different thread based on 2011 Census.

    In reality the difference is quite small each year but like compound interest is massive over time.

    If we just look at the deaths 15,000 x .65 – 15,000 x .35 ( assuming all non unionist are nationalist for simplicity) is 9750 – 5250 is 4500 net decline each year (tempered by the % of that age group that vote) . Over 10 years that’s 40,000 swing…

  • David

    In retrospect, I couldn’t believe someone would actually attempt to defend and rationalise such actions. Just when you think human nature can’t stoop any lower, suddenly it does.

  • Croiteir

    And there wee go – cannot debate just wants to … erm… pontificate. Sorry about that – if you come on a site like this and wish to make an issue out of a point that had only a tangential relationship to the point made you can hardly complain if the other person obliges.

  • David

    The thing of course is that you weren’t debating, merely attempting to defend the indefensible.

    ”Yes multiple children were raped and their abusers protected for decades by a supposedly Christian organisation, but….”

    ”Yes women were imprisoned in slave-like conditions and sadistically abused, but…”

    ”Yes hundreds of young children died mysteriously and their bodies were dumped by church representatives, but…”

    On these issues, there is no ‘debate’. Attempting to excuse such vile abuse against the most vulnerable in Irish society says much about the apologist.

  • Croiteir

    You put those sentences in quotations – are you implying I wrote them?