However, for Dodds the move may simply be the better of two bad choices. It is widely rumoured that Dodds is ambitious and covets the leadership of the DUP when Peter Robinson retires. However, to be leader of the DUP, Dodds needs to be an MP, and not an MEP.
Dodds is, of course, currently the MP for North Belfast, a seat which he won from the bumbling UUP incumbent in 2001. But North Belfast is not a particularly safe seat for unionism. If Dodds stays in local politics he could lose his seat, if not at the next election, then at the one that follows it – i.e. just at the time when he would see himself replacing Robinson! If he goes to Europe, Dodds may not have a seat to return to – in the meantime, without his vote-pulling name, the seat may already have been lost to unionism. His own wife, Diane Dodds is being suggested (by the same rumours that suggest that Nigel Dodds may be headed for Strasbourg) as an interim replacement, to hold the seat for him until he returns. But this is a risky strategy for the DUP, as she has a much lower profile than he does.
The two blocks have been drawing closer in North Belfast during the past generation. The graph below shows their relative strengths since 1983:
In the most recent election, for the Assembly in 2007, the combined unionist vote dipped below 50% for the first time (though some of the votes received by independents would revert to unionist candidates in a straight head-to-head contest for the Westminster seat). The nationalist vote has increased greatly in North Belfast over the last 25 years, though seems to be fairly flat since 2001. That year (2001) was, as we have previously seen in many local council areas, an exceptionally good year for the nationalist vote, when it exceeded its trend almost everywhere.
This is also visible if we look at the votes cast for the two blocks as a percentage of the whole electorate. The narrowing gap is clear, and if (a big 'if') nationalism is sufficiently motivated to repeat its efforts of 2001, it has shown that it already has the possibility to achieve a higher proportion of the electorate than unionism has achieved in the last two elections:
A very important part of the problem facing Dodds is that most of his votes come from Protestants, and the Protestant population tends to be older than the Catholic population (who generally vote nationalist). Amongst the oldest age groups Protestants outnumber Catholics by 75% to 25% - this drops quite quickly until parity is reached between the two groups at around age 45 (the graph below shows the proportions at the time of the 2001 census – the graph needs to be shifted towards the right by seven years to bring it closer to the 2008 situation):
In addition to Dodds reliance on elderly Protestant voters to maintain his slim majority, North Belfast has a population that is older than the Northern Irish average, and so his voters are actually dying more rapidly than those of other constituencies. The graph below shows the age structure in North Belfast (the percentage of the population at each age) and the age structure of Northern Ireland as a whole:
The red line, representing North Belfast, exceeds the Northern Irish average at all ages over 60 (in 2001; i.e. 67 today). A large proportion of that group is going to be dead by the time of the next election, cutting Dodds majority to a very small one … if he has one at all! And the effect of this will continue for another 10 years, as average life expectancy is over 80 years for those people who make it as far as 67. So his vote will continue to shrink, while the nationalist vote will continue to rise – it loses fewer to death, while gaining more new voters (see the graph above, which shows that the teenagers in North Belfast in 2001 are majority Catholic).
Finally, to rub some more salt into Dodds wounds, the next election will be fought with slightly modified constituency boundaries. Nicholas Whyte has calculated that "this makes the new constituency 0.2% more Catholic, and 0.3% less Protestant than the old. The electoral effects will be minimal". Minimal, perhaps, but Dodds is going to need every single vote!
So poor Nigel Dodds is between a rock and a hard place. If he goes to Strasbourg then he may have trouble returning, but if he doesn't go he may suffer the embarrassment of losing his seat before he achieves his political dreams.