Almost in the centre of Northern Ireland, Cookstown District is made up of three District Electoral Areas (DEAs); Drum Manor, Ballinderry, and Central.
The graphs below show the breakdown of the percentage of the vote received by nationalists and unionists at each DC election since 1985.
[NB: There was no election in Ballinderry in 2005 as there were the same number of candidates as seats, but Ballinderry is a majority nationalist DEA (62% in 2001), so its absence would skew the overall result. So an assumption has therefore been made of a 60/40 breakdown in 2005, and a turnout rate that is the average of its turnout rates in previous elections.]
The pattern shown by these two graphs is one of nationalist advance, and unionist retreat – until 2005, when that appears to reverse. The downward trend of the unionist proportion is reversed in all three DEAs in Cookstown, and its mirror image, the nationalist advance, is also reversed. What may have caused this?
All three elections in 1997, 2001 and 2005 were fairly 'pure' elections, in so far as there was almost no interference from candidates other than unionists or nationalists. So either the balance between unionists and nationalists in the district is changing, or one of the groups has increased its turnout rate.
To test this, the graph below shows the actual number of nationalist and unionist votes, with the same assumptions for Ballinderry in 2005 as explained above:
And, as a percentage of the entire electorate (i.e. not just those who actually voted)
Unionism declined continuously both in absolute terms, and as a proportion of the electorate, whereas nationalism was more volatile – its trend was upward, but it exceeded the trend in 2001, and dropped below it in 2005, thereby giving the appearance of a resurgent unionism, when this was not, in fact, the case – unionism did not benefit from nationalism's reduced vote. The increase in the unionist share was entirely due to a drop in nationalist turnout. Perhaps, after the monumental efforts of the last 1990s to wrest control of Cookstown Council from the unionists, the fire had cooled a bit amongst nationalist voters.
What does the demography of the district tell us about its future, or indeed its past?
The graph below shows the breakdown by religion (Catholic, Protestant, or 'Other/None') by age in Cookstown in 2001 (census table s306, for the enthusiasts):
Firstly, as a percentage of the total population at each age:
And then, in absolute numbers at each age:
This makes clear that Cookstown has moved from being a majority Protestant area in the 1920s (and probably before) when those over-90 in 2001 were children, through a 30 year period of approximate equality, to a fairly dramatic change that started around the late 1940s and has accelerated since. This last 60 years has seen a clear widening of the gap between the proportion of Protestants and Catholics born in Cookstown each year and remaining there (Catholic birth rates may always have been higher than that apparent from the graph above, but Catholics may have had to emigrate).
The groups on the left of the graph above are not yet all in the electorate. The census was a snapshot taken in 2001, which means that by now (2008) almost all of those aged 10 and over are likely to be voters, but an equivalent chunk of the graph (that on the right) will have largely died. This represents the loss to the electorate of a majority-Protestant group (the elderly), and the gain of a majority-Catholic group (the teenagers of the graph above). There is no evidence in the graph that this situation will change, and thus the proportion of the electorate that will be Catholic (and thus largely nationalist) will continue to increase. The nationalist vote as a percentage of the electorate (see graph above) is likely to continue to rise, while the unionist proportion of the vote continues to fall.
Another visible factor is that Catholic parents (roughly those in their mid-20s to mid-30s), who make up some 55-65% of their cohort, are having around 65% of the children. Their Protestant counterparts, some 35-45% of the cohort, are having only 35% of the children. The fertility rate amongst Catholics is clearly higher than that amongst Protestants, and if this continues, it will ensure a constantly increasing Catholic proportion of the population. However, even if birth rates equalise between Catholics and Protestants, the greater number of Catholics in the child-bearing age group (approximately 25-35) means that there will continue to be more Catholics born than Protestants. It would take an extremely unusual set of circumstances for Cookstown to ever again be a 'Protestant' area.
In 2001 the electorate (i.e. all those aged 18 and over) in Cookstown was 55.4% Catholic, and 43.6% Protestant.
The share of the vote received by nationalist candidates in the 2001 District Council election was 56.8%, and for Unionist candidates 43.2%.
These almost identical figures demonstrate quite clearly the overlap of religion and politics. Given the increasing proportion of Catholics in Cookstown's population at younger ages, an increase in the nationalist proportion of the vote will almost certainly follow.
What of the future? In 2011 Cookstown District Council will disappear, to be merged with Magherafelt and Dungannon in a new Mid-Ulster District :
Later blogs will look at both Magherafelt and Dungannon – both of which have also become more nationalist over the period 1985-2005. The new district is destined to be a clearly nationalist one, along with its neighbours to the west, and the Newry City and Down District Council.