It would be interesting to compare current voting patterns with those of 1921 when NI came into being. The exact location of Northern Ireland’s land border – once Thomas Agar-Robartes, MP, let the partition cat out of the Home-Rule bag in 1912 – was always going to be by county, given the Westminster constituency boundaries and census returns at the time.
Today’s Westminster, Stormont and local government constituency/electoral area boundaries cross the six county boundaries more often than they did one hundred years ago. This makes comparison of results by county somewhat difficult. However, as local elections have the most ‘constituencies’ (called electoral areas), they offer the best comparison of the three current election types.
There are 11 district councils. These are divided into 80 district electoral areas (EAs). There are 462 wards making up the EAs. Each EA comprises five, six or seven wards. Twenty-one wards cross county boundaries (one of which, Aghagallon, is in three counties). Detailed maps of councils, EAs and wards can be found here.
The 21 multi-county wards are located in 14 EAs:
- Banbridge (1 ward), Craigavon (1), Lagan River (1) and Lurgan (2) (Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council);
- Causeway (3) (Causeway Coast and Glens Council);
- Faughan (1) (Derry and Strabane Council);
- Enniskillen (1) and Erne North (2) (Fermanagh and Omagh Council);
- Downshire West (2) and Lisburn North (1) (Lisburn and Castlereagh Council);
- Clogher Valley (1), Cookstown (2) and Magherafelt (1) (Mid Ulster Council); and
- Newry (2) (Newry, Mourne and Down Council).
Three EAs (Balmoral, Botanic (both Belfast), and Sperrin (Derry and Strabane)) are multi-county, whose wards are not multi-county.
The Newry and Lagan rivers are taken as the county boundaries, splitting Newry, Belfast and Lisburn between two counties.
Population estimates were made for the 21 multi-county wards based on observable settlement pattern on current Ordnance Survey maps. The affected EA county populations were then calculated based on this number plus the unsplit wards. The party and bloc vote for these EAs was then calculated based on these county proportions. It was assumed that the unionist-nationalist-other split in a multi-county EA was similar in both counties. Candidate vote allocation into unionist, nationalist or middle-ground bloc was done by analysing vote transfer preferences to and from candidates.
An error of ±5% was estimated in allocating population and bloc share to EAs. Antrim has the fewest percentage of EAs shared with other counties so its errors are smallest (errors in increasing order: AM, DWN, LDY, TE, AH, FH).
|County||Unionist Bloc %||Nationalist Bloc %||Middle-Ground Bloc %|
(est. votes: 213,233)
Nationalists are in a majority in four counties. Unionists have a plurality (largest share, but less than 50%) in two counties, but no majority in any county.
The DUP was the largest party in Antrim and Down in 2019, with Sinn Féin the largest in the other four counties.
Turnout is generally much lower today, compared to 100 years ago. Also, turnout varies much more so than in the past. In the 1921 NI election, turnout ranged from 85.4% in Antrim to 92.3% in Belfast West. In the 2019 local election, lowest turnout was in Bangor Central (40.50%) and highest turnout occurred in Erne East (70.68%). Put another way, more than twice as many voters turned out everywhere in 1921 than voted in Bangor Central in 2019. Admittedly, the first NI-parliament election was going to have a huge turnout in 1921 compared to a local election in 2019, but turnout drop east of the Bann nowadays should be of concern to anyone interested in democracy.
Why are so many greater Belfast voters consumed by apathy? Are they so deliriously happy with the status quo that they see no need to vote? Are unionist parties not extreme enough for them? Too extreme?
What will these voters do in a border poll? Consider the following scenario: in 2032 nationalist parties gain a majority of Stormont seats and votes, with an average turnout of 75% in west-of-the-Bann constituencies and 50% turnout to the east. The NI Secretary of State calls a border poll on Irish unity. East-coast unionists flock to the polls with 1921 or 1998 GFA/BA referendum turnout figures and the border poll is defeated. Are politicians who want a United Ireland factoring in the very likely minimising of differential turnout in a border poll?
How has county voting changed since 1921? It is difficult to make exact comparisons as Belfast South was in two counties, and Fermanagh and Tyrone was one constituency. However, it is clear that two counties have changed political allegiance in the past hundred years. In 1921 Armagh voted 55.3% unionist, and Londonderry voted 56.2% unionist. Down and Antrim would have had clear unionist majorities in 1921. So unionism has lost its majority in all four counties where it had previously had a majority.
These figures show that the state-imperialism-plantation coloniser-colonised view of history is not relevant anymore as an explanation of the Northern Ireland conflict in its current phase. Four of NI’s six counties (AH, FH, LDY, TE) were part of the English government’s Plantation of Ulster. All six of these counties (plus CN and DL) now have nationalist majorities. Yet nationalism is a minority in Northern Ireland. Why? Three of Ulster’s nine counties (AM, DWN, MN) were outside the Plantation of Ulster. Down and Antrim saw an influx of Lowland Scots, many of whom – according to Roger Blaney’s Presbyterianism and the Irish Language – were Gaelic native-speakers: “at least half of all the early Presbyterians in Ulster were Irish/Gaelic-speakers.” (p.19). Just as the Irish have been migrating across the North Channel to the south and west of Scotland for 1,500 years, the Scots have been moving across the same 12-mile-wide stretch of water since Edward Bruce (a descendant of Aoife MacMurrough) – on invitation from Domnall mac Brian Ó Néill, king of Tír Eoghain – arrived in Olderfleet Castle in 1315. Indeed, Scotland means ‘the land of the Gaels’.
Also, many unionist voters and politicians have Gaelic Irish surnames (Maginnis, McCusker, O’Neill, Shannon). Similarly for nationalists and ‘Planter’ names (Adams, Hume). Late eighteenth-century Republicanism in Ulster was promulgated – and fought for – mostly by the ancestors of DUP voters. There has been plenty of ‘identity-crossing’ over the past 400 years in every part of Ireland.
If people have been switching political allegiance in the past, they can do so again. This puts it up to NI’s politicians on all sides: have you the subtlety of thought and charisma of expression to persuade a significant section of the electorate to ‘identity-cross’ in a border poll?
Philip McGuinness teaches at Dundalk Institute of Technology, plays music with the Oriel Traditional Orchestra, and loves to walk around and over the wee perfect hills of the Ring Of Gullion.