On 7 March Northern Ireland went to the polls for the nineth time since the Good Friday Agreement, and the 18th time in the last 20 years. The reporting of the results of this election have emphasised the success of the DUP, and to a lesser extent, of Sinn Féin. The impression given is that the DUP has won a great victory and has been vindicated in its hard-line position.
However, at this (umpteenth) crossroads in Northern Ireland's history, with Dr No still playing hard to get, only the churlish would point out that this recent election marks no victory for unionism. On the contrary, obscured by the DUP's increased vote and seat count, the election demonstrated another small step towards the eventual demise of Project Ulster.
Yes, the DUP increased its vote. But it did this at the expense of its fellow unionists, and the overall unionist vote decreased by almost 4%, dipping below 50% for the fourth time in history. Unionism (often described as the "majority community") used to receive over 60% of the vote in the 1970s. By the 1980s that proportion had started to slip into the high 50s; by the 1990s it was heading into the low 50s, and, in 1997 it slipped below 50% for the first time ever.
Since 1997 the unionist vote has been hovering around the 50% mark, sometimes above, but in 2001 and 2004 dipping below. And now, in 2007, unionism is below 50% again, and at its lowest ever point. And, unlike some commentators, I am being charitable, and counting as unionist every possible pro-union candidate (DUP, UUP, PUP, UKUP, UKIP, Conservative, even some independent candidates).
So while the DUP scored an impressive 36 seats in the Assembly election, the overall unionist seat count went down! The DUP's gains were over-compensated by the UUP's losses, and instead of 59 seats in the 2003-2007 Assembly, unionism now has 55.
Some may say that comparing 2007 to 2003 is unfair, as the Alliance Party committed near-suicide in 2003 in order to 'Save Dave'. In 2007, fed up with the UUP (like everyone else, it seems), Alliance voters returned to their own fold, and gave their party an impressive result. So compare 2007 with 1998, then: unionist vote down 2%, and seats down 3. Oops, still no joy!
On the other side of the fence (or wall, if you live in Belfast), the nationalist vote has been edging up. In 1998 it stood at 39,7%; in 2003 at 40,7%, and in 2007 at 42,6%. Not a revolution, I grant you, but certainly an evolution!
In terms of seats, nationalism has gone from 42 in 1998 and 2003, to 44 today.
So what does it all mean? In simple terms, it reflects the political outworking of the growth in the Catholic proportion of Northern Ireland's population. That growth is far from reaching its plateau: the elderly in Northern Ireland are still overwhelmingly Protestant (and thus mostly unionist), and a majority of the children are Catholic (and thus will be mostly nationalist). So there is still a lot of shrinkage coming for unionism, and growth for nationalism, and there is not much that unionism can do about it!
The 2007 election represents nothing new, just another small step along a road that we have all been travelling since the 1970s. For unionism it represents just another reminder of their inevitable fate, the nightmare of being outnumbered and outvoted somewhere down the line. Northern Ireland is probably the most-counted place on earth, and so this election can been looked at in the context of the 17 others in the last 20 years, and patterns can be identified. Those patterns are quite clear: some time in the next decade unionism is going to enter a period of permanent minority, where it will have to co-exist with a nationalism of virtually the same size. The centre parties should have their moment of power, as king-makers, but the Good Friday Agreement mechanisms make them largely powerless. After a decade or so of tense co-existence nationalism will pull ahead, probably in the 2020s, and the re-unification of Ireland will become possible.