Friday morning’s Guardian reports on the top line results from University of Liverpool research which shows that “younger pro-union Protestant voters in Northern Ireland are increasingly turned off unionist politicians due to their parties’ social conservatism on issues such as gay rights and abortion”.
The results are challenging, not just for unionist parties, but potentially also for Alliance. Henry McDonald’s report on the survey says:
“While support among Protestants aged under 40 for staying in the UK remains solid at 82%, a majority of them no longer vote in elections for the Northern Ireland assembly or Westminster …
“The research concludes there is a much broader divide between generations, with the most liberal sections of Northern Irish society not voting in local elections.”
1,155 voters across Northern Ireland were interviewed directly after June’s General Election.
63% of under-40s pro-unionist Protestants who voted were in favour of same-sex marriage equality. Support rose to 72% amongst non-voting under-40s pro-unionist Protestants.
Survey author Prof Peter Shirlow said that the findings pointed out a “massive inter-generational gap” between younger voters’ social attitudes and those of the political parties. In particular, this alienation of younger unionists should be a “wake-up call to the DUP” in terms of alienating younger unionists.
The article includes a sidebar with an interview with Davy Rea who self-describes as a unionist who believes in equality.
… over the last few years in a plethora of elections to the Stormont assembly, local councils and even Westminster, Rae has been at times reluctant to visit his local polling station.
Why? Because he is pro-union but also gay.
Rea, who works for a technology company, says he has no one to vote for among the mainstream unionist political parties – especially those who constantly torpedo attempts to bring marriage equality to Northern Ireland.
“I don’t feel I have any real choice when it comes to voting in elections,” he says. “I am a unionist, I am socially liberal, I believe in equality but who can I vote for? [emphasis added]
Rea goes on to outline his opinion that “by opposing equality the DUP are discarding and ignoring people like myself who want to remain in the UK, inside a multicultural, tolerant society”.
“My sister is 17 and will soon be of voting age. She asks me all the time who can she vote for if she is pro-union but believes in treating people equally. What do I tell her?”
Conclusions cannot be drawn from one case study. The article says that a “majority” of surveyed under-40s pro-unionist Protestants did not vote in June’s General Election (though doesn’t give a specific figure).
While there’s a direct challenge to parties with a ‘U’ in their acronym, there’s also an implicit challenge to Alliance (and also the Greens) who are neutral on the union, but are not successfully wooing all the pro-union voters who reject their tradition parties’ social conservatism.