The choice of period is deliberate. It represents one political generation. It also represents the period between the upheavals caused by the Hunger Strikes, and Sinn Féin's decisive move into electoral politics, and the end of the current system of local government. The 2005 local elections were the last to be held for the current 26 councils – in 2011 elections will be held for the 11 larger councils that will replace them. It is a good time, therefore, to step back and take a look at what has happened over the past political generation.
The graph below shows the overall share of votes received by unionist and nationalist candidates at the six local elections during the period:
As can immediately be seen, the period saw a steady increase in the proportion of the vote that went to nationalists, and a decline in the proportion going to unionists. At local level the trend was not as smooth, of course. In some DCs there was little or no change, while in others the change was dramatic. This blog will look in more detail in the weeks to come at some of the more dramatic examples.
The graph shows that, while the upward trend for the nationalist share of the vote was quite consistent, the unionist share enjoyed some recovery in 2001 and 2005, as they absorbed votes that had previously gone to independent candidates, or to the Alliance Party (whose share dropped in 2001 and 2005, compared with 1997). Whether there are any remaining independent votes left for unionism to absorb in the future is uncertain. If not, its downward decline should resume.
Quite a few DCs and DEAs have remained solidly unionist or nationalist over time, but a number of DEAs have gone from being unionist majority in 1985 to nationalist majority in 2005. No DEA has moved in the opposite direction. In later blogs we will be looking at some of the more striking examples, starting, in no particular order, with Cookstown.
A changing geography
The maps below show the DEAs that had unionist majorities (i.e. unionist vote over 50% of total vote) in 1985 and in 2005. It is a picture of retreat. The solid block of 'majority unionist' territory has been pushed back largely to the east of the Bann, leaving only isolated pockets in the west.
Majority Unionist DEAs in 1985
Majority Unionist DEAs in 2005
The maps below show the same information for nationalism. Here, evidence of advance is clear, especially west of the Bann. It is worth repeating – this is the change over one single political generation. In the later blogs in this series we will be examining the available evidence to see how far this process will continue, and what effect it will have on the future shape of local government in Northern Ireland.
Majority Nationalist DEAs in 1985
It is interesting to note that in the 2001 census, the proportion of the electorate (i.e. all those aged 18 and over) that was Catholic was 41.5%, almost exactly the same proportion of the electorate that voted for nationalist candidates. The proportion of the electorate that was Protestant was 56.2%. This could imply several things – either Protestants have a lower turnout rate than Catholics, or almost all the votes received by parties such as the Alliance Party come from Protestants, or that there is a small portion of the Protestant vote that goes to nationalist parties. One thing it almost certainly disproves is that any significant portion of the Catholic vote goes to unionist candidates.
The graph below shows the actual numbers of Catholics and Protestants at each age in 2001. It shows clearly that there is a greater mass of Protestants at all ages above 24, but below that age Catholics consistently outnumber Protestants. The 'tipping point' of 24 in 2001 has become, in 2008, 31 years of age. The electorate in 2001 consisted of all of those aged 18 and over, as shown. However, the age groups to the left of the point representing age 18 on the x-axis are starting to enter the electorate – and they are all majority Catholic.
Another way of looking at these figures is to see the two groups as a percentage of the total. The graph below shows that at progressively younger age groups the Catholic proportion grows, outnumbering its Protestant equivalent at all ages under 24 (in 2001; 31 now). The majority Protestant age groups on the right of the graph are progressively dying off.
Note: detailed election results for the whole period can be found on the website of the Electoral Office. Nicholas Whyte also offers synthesised results on his site, but beware for the errors which litter his site. Demographic statistics, primarily from the 2001 Census can be downloaded from NISRA.