Sunday 23 November 2008

Belfast City Council

The biggest single local government district, Belfast is divided into nine District Electoral areas (DEAs); Balmoral, Castle, Court, Laganbank, Lower Falls, Oldpark, Pottinger, Upper Falls and Victoria.


In many ways Belfast is unusual. Its electorate has been shrinking throughout the period looked at here; from 217406 in 1985 down to 166824 in 2005. At the same time, the nationalist proportion of the vote has been gradually increasing, and the unionist share decreasing, as the graphs below show.

The graphs show the level of separation of the two blocks in Belfast: two DEAs are almost entirely nationalist, and one is almost entirely unionist. Taken over the whole generation from 1985 to 2005, only Court (in loyalist West Belfast) shows an increase in the proportion of the vote going to unionists. Seven of the nine DEAs show a significant increase in the nationalist proportion, including quite dramatic increases in Laganbank, Balmoral and Castle DEAs. In Laganbank and Balmoral, both relatively affluent areas in South Belfast, nationalists now outnumber unionists. Castle DEA shows the largest drop in its unionist proportion, though they still have a plurality of the vote.


As a proportion of the electorate, the nationalist vote has been gradually increasing over the generation:

The unionist proportion of the electorate has not declined significantly. The figures show that in 2001 and 2005 turnout in Belfast was considerably higher than its historical trend, so it seems that as the two blocks approached parity (in 1997) both sides voters felt an additional stimulus in the following elections.

However, in 2001 the electorate of Belfast City Council area was 51.6% Protestant, and only 45% Catholic, so either the turnout rate amongst Catholics was higher than amongst Protestants, or more Protestants voted for 'other' candidates. Such candidates received 9.2% of the vote in 2001, including an enormous 23% of the votes cast in Victoria DEA (mostly for the Alliance Party). As Victoria is a largely Protestant DEA, it is likely that many of these votes were Protestant too, and this had the effect of lowering the votes for unionist parties.


In demographic terms Belfast is also quite unusual. It has gone from being a largely Protestant city to one where the two main religious groups are almost equal in size. Within that equality, however, lies a changing dynamic. The graph below shows the proportions at each age that are Catholic, Protestant, or 'Other or None':

Two factors stand out very clearly. Firstly, old people in Belfast are mainly Protestant. But the proportion of Protestants at each age drops quite quickly, until they form a minority at all ages below 30 (in 2001, thus 37 in 2008). Secondly, the proportion claiming no religion is rising quite fast amongst he children. As children do not complete census forms, this identification must be their parents – they may, therefore, represent the children of mixed marriages. Their own community identification may become clearer at the next census (in 2011).

Another feature of Belfast's religious demography is visible in the graph below, which shows the actual number at each age:

The spike in both Catholic and Protestant numbers at age 19 is the opposite of the trough that can be seen in other areas. It represents the students and other young people that Belfast, as a university town, gains from other areas. As can be seen, they tend not to stay after they finish their studies.

Another interesting feature of the graph above is that, despite common belief, students are no less religious than the general public – there is no spike in the 'no religion' numbers at age 19.

The future

In common with most post-industrial cities, Belfast is losing people to the more pleasant suburbs and neighbouring towns. Whether this continues or bottoms out is hard to predict.

In 2011 Belfast will continue to exist as a local government area, but with slightly modified boundaries. It will take in areas of the existing Castlereagh and Lisburn districts – however the description of these areas in the Provisional Recommendations report of the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner does not allow them to be accurately identified, much less quantified either in electoral or demographic terms. It is likely, though, that the effect will be largely neutral, with majority unionist areas from Castlereagh cancelling out the largely nationalist areas from Lisburn. The first election to the new Belfast City Council in 2011 will be watched closely to see how these changes work out.


Faha said...

There is another factor that will determine the outcome of the 2011election in Belfast. The expanded Belfast will contain 60 wards. They will be of nearly equal number of electors. The old wards are very outdated. In 2005, the Court DEA, with 13,500 electors, elected 5 unionists to the Belfast City Counci. The Upper Falls DEA
(19,700 electors) and Lower Falls DEA (16,300) each elected 5 nationalists. The Court DEA region will have only 4 new wards and the Upper Falls and Lower Falls area will have 11 new wards. This alone will result in a net loss of one unionist seat and a gain of one nationalist seat. The changes elsewhere in Belfast will have a similar effect. The final boundaries ( including ward boundaries ) are still undecided. The site has all the submissions by interested parties and the dates for the public hearings.

Anonymous said...

That's a good point, Faha. It will be interesting to see the final size and shape of the wards.

I read some of the submissions to the LGBC but they were just so predictable that I stopped. Basically the unionists don't want Dunmurry in the new Belfast CC ... I wonder why? It's a transparent attempt to engineer a unionist majority. But it looks like they'll lose that rgument, and lose Belfast too soon enough.

Anonymous said...

Horseman, perhaps I am missing something but how do you reconcile your graph of the 'Belfast CC: proportion of the Electorate' which shows that Nationalist share of the vote above the Unionist share - with the statement "However, in 2001 the electorate of Belfast City Council area was 51.6% Protestant, and only 45% Catholic, so either the turnout rate amongst Catholics was higher than amongst".