By Professor John Doyle, director of the IICRR
The recent elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly are historic for a number of reasons. The results marked the first time since partition that the parliament / assembly in Northern Ireland does not contain a majority of members who could be described as unequivocally committed Ulster Unionists – committed in every circumstance to Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom. Only 45% of the population voted for traditional unionist parties; 40% voted for parties committed to Irish unity, with just under 15% voting for smaller parties and independents, many defining themselves as “cross community”, or campaigning on other issues such as economic austerity, the environment etc.
There is no short-term likelihood of a majority voting for Irish unity, but the fact that less than 50% of the population voted for parties for whom opposition to Irish unity is their core concern, is a significant symbolic and practical change, all the more so as it reflects long-term and on-going demographic change. Demographic prediction is a very inexact science, and strongly impacted by emigration patterns in Northern Ireland. It is impossible to know how political views may evolve.
The most recent Labour Force Survey, however, suggest that the demographic shift towards a growing Irish nationalist community is continuing. It captures religious background rather than voting intentions, but given the strong correlation between religious background and political affiliation at the macro level and the more or less equal size of the minority in each community whose political opinions reflect the ‘other’, such data continues to largely reflect macro-level voting data. The 2015 data shows that Catholics are now in an overall majority in the 16-24 age cohort and are a higher proportion of the working age population (46%) than Protestants (40%), with the remaining 14% reported as ‘other/non-determined/refused to answer’. Other opinion poll data suggests that this growing nationalist population is increasingly likely to vote for parties committed to Irish unity and in particular Sinn Féin rather than less so.
The second significant aspect of the election was the impact of the Brexit. Northern Ireland voted by 57% to stay in the European Union, with the overwhelming majority of Irish nationalists and approximately 40% of unionists voting to stay in the EU. The consequences for attitudes to Irish unity are long-term rather than immediate, but those in the unionist community who are strongly committed to EU membership faced both a practical and ideological challenge. Irish unity was historically portrayed by some unionists as a move from a large, cosmopolitan and internationally focused state (or Empire) to a smaller and more inward looking Irish state. Now it is Ireland which is linked to Europe and cosmopolitanism, and the UK seems inward-looking and parochial. If Scotland votes for independence in 2018/19 that clash of images will be all the stronger.
The third feature of the election was the continuing growth of Sinn Féin and their increasing dominance over the more conservative nationalist SDLP. There is now no majority nationalist constituency where the SDLP out-poll Sinn Féin. Even in the SDLP’s heartland of Derry City, Sinn Féin emerged as the largest party. A small but significant number of transfers from moderate unionists to the SDLP, helped them secure one or perhaps 2 additional seats, but ultimately this could not hold back the growth in the Sinn Féin advance.
Unionist discourse after the election has sought to explain the shift by assumptions of differentiated turnout or the multitude of unionist parties. However there is very little difference in nationalist and unionist turnout patterns over the past 10 years. Neither does the number of political parties impact in a Single Transferable Vote system, where voters has the option to transfer their vote on to other parties. The real driver of the electoral change is the underlying demographic trend showing a continuing growth in the nationalist community, combined with a continuing very high proportion of young voters from a nationalist community background who vote for the two major Irish nationalist parties, and who do so increasingly for Sinn Féin as the strongest advocate of Irish unity. The future is not certain but unionists remain in denial for now about the underlying basis of change.
The untimely death of Martin McGuinness – the former Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin chief negotiator and IRA leader – following the election, after a short illness, marks both the passing of a generation of leadership but also the consolidation of Sinn Féin’s dominance of Irish nationalist politics in Northern Ireland. Although the 2017 election was caused by the collapse of the power-sharing executive the fact that McGuinness’ funeral was attended by former unionist first ministers Arlene Foster and Peter Robinson was, perhaps, at time of writing a sign of hope that a renewed power-sharing government might be possible.