At the start of the current political generation (defined here as 1985 until the present day), unionism was very narrowly dominant in Fermanagh. In 1985 the nationalist parties had secured a small majority on the Council, but this was reversed in 1989 and 1993, when unionists gained a slight majority of the seats. In 1997 neither block had a majority (the balance of power was held by veteran socialist Davy Kettyles). In 2001, however, nationalism started to pull ahead, winning 13 of the 23 seats on the council. When Kettyles did not stand in 2005 his seat was picked up by the SDLP to give a stronger nationalist majority on the council (14 out of 23 seats).
The graphs below show the Nationalist and Unionist percentages of the vote in each of the DEAs from 1985 to 2005:
Although the evolutions of the two blocks are not as striking as we have previously seen in Cookstown, Dungannon and Magherafelt, there is nonetheless some evidence of a downward trend in unionism's share of the vote, and an upward trend in nationalism's share, especially since 1993.
Here we see evidence of a continuous unionist decline, masked by a period of demoralisation amongst nationalists from 1989 to 1997. In 2001 and 2005 this appears to have ended, most strikingly in Enniskillen where the nationalist vote increased from 27.7% in 1989 to 46.7% 16 years later. No migration or demographic changes could have brought about such a surge – only the revitalisation of the nationalist vote could have done so.
As seen elsewhere west of the Bann, Fermanagh's religious balance was closer in the past than it is now. The proportions of the population that are Protestant or Catholic are fairly even from the age of 60 upwards. However, below that age, the proportion that is Catholic starts to outstrip the proportion that is Protestant:
In terms of absolute numbers, the graph looks like this:
A noticeable feature of the graph above is the steep decline in the Catholic birth rate particularly during the 1990s (i.e. amongst those children aged 10 and below in 2001). From a peak of 719 births in 1976, the Catholic birth rate dropped to as low as 451 in 1989. While the Protestant birth rate also dropped, the drop was less severe. By 2007 the number of births in Fermanagh had not changed much (802 in total), but it is not yet possible to know if the numbers stabilised at the proportions of 2001 (i.e. around 500 Catholic, and 300 Protestant), or if the balance had changed one way or the other.
In 2001 the proportions of the population aged 18 and over (i.e. the electorate) were: Catholic, 57.3%, and Protestant, 41.5%.
In that same year the proportion of the vote that went to nationalist candidates was 53.9%, while 43.4% went to unionist candidates. The difference vis-à-vis the sizes of the two religious communities could have been caused by either a low nationalist turnout, or the influence of the mythical Catholic unionists. However, only Protestant unionists actually believe that Catholic unionists exist, despite never having met one.
So that means that nationalists did not turn out in full strength, and this is borne out by a comparison of 1985 and 2001 – in 1985 the nationalist vote was 41.8% of the entire electorate, while the unionist vote was 38.2% of the electorate. By 2001 the unionist vote had declined to 31.2% of the electorate, but the nationalist vote had not even recovered to its earlier position, and was only 40.8% of the electorate, despite the boost that would be expected from the demographic increase shown in the graphs above. So it seems that nationalist demoralisation had not yet entirely dissipated.
An alternative theory is that the period saw an increase in the strength of 'dissident' republicanism in Fermanagh, and that these people tend not to vote at all, thus giving nationalism a slightly smaller share of the electorate to draw from than the demographics would lead one to expect.
In 2011 Fermanagh will join with the current Omagh district to form a new local government area, to be known (provisionally) as Fermanagh and Omagh District Council. A future blog will examine the (reconstructed) past and likely future of this district.