Tuesday 16 December 2008

Omagh District Council

This is another one of those 'town-with-hinterland' council areas of which we have already seen several (Cookstown, Fermanagh, Ballymoney, Strabane, and so on). The District Council area is divided into three DEAs; Omagh Town in the middle, West Tyrone to its west, and Mid Tyrone to its east.


Although it is hard to believe it now, in the past Omagh was unionist controlled. Only in 1981 did nationalists take 50% of the seats on the council, and subsequently more. Sinn Féin only took its first seats (6) in 1985 – in 2005 they took 10 seats, one short of a majority on the council (which has a total of 21 seats).

During the last political generation (1985-2005) the nationalist proportion of the vote has increased from 57% to 67%, with one year of reverse in 1993 when both the Labourite Johnny McLaughlin and the Alliance Party did well in Omagh town.

Unionism, however, has had a difficult time throughout the period, falling from 36% at the start to below 30% at the end. The apparent collapse of the unionist vote in Omagh Town in 2001 is perceptual rather than real – their actual vote increased (1997: 2413 votes; 2001: 2424 votes), but the enormous increase in the nationalist vote (1997: 3051; 2001: 4774) meant that proportionately the unionist vote dropped considerably. Of course, this merely shows that there were a large number of potential nationalist voters who had not voted before 2001, for reasons unknown.

When the votes of the two blocks are viewed as percentages of the whole electorate (i.e. all of those eligible to vote) the decline in unionism is clear:

From receiving the votes of 27,4% of the electorate in 1985, unionism declined continuously and at the end of the period received votes from only 21,8% of those eligible to vote. Nationalism had a more volatile time, initially declining before the cease-fire, but then bouncing back strongly. In 2001 the coincidence of Westminster elections with the local elections stimulated a high turn-out amongst nationalists and they received the votes of 53% of Omagh's eligible voters. Unionism enjoyed no such bounce, perhaps showing that it was already operating at maximum capacity and had no reserve voters.


The religious breakdown in Omagh has been changing slowly throughout the past 90 years (at least). Catholics are a majority at all ages, but have increased that majority over time. Amongst the very old, around 60% were Catholic and 40% Protestant in 2001 (the latest census), but amongst the young over 70% are Catholic and around 25% are Protestant.

The numbers of people at each age tell the same story, but show an astonishing loss to the Catholic population between ages 17 and 19. Almost 300 young Catholics leave the area between those ages, either to university or to seek jobs elsewhere. Below age 17 the numbers of Catholics starts to drop as family sizes shrink, but they are still comfortably superior to the numbers of Protestants.

Only time will tell whether the loss of young Catholics continues at the same rate. If not, then the large numbers of teenagers behind the spike in the graph above will have entered the electorate by the time of the next local election in 2011, increasing its Catholic proportion, and decreasing even further its Protestant proportion.

The electorate

The graphs above show quite clearly that the electorate (i.e. all those aged 18 and above) had a Catholic majority in 2001, and that this majority was not in any danger from the generation to come (those under 18 in the graphs above). The precise breakdown of the electorate in 2001 was 67.5% Catholic, and 31.4% Protestant. This compares to the actual votes cast in the 2001 local elections when nationalist candidates received 66.4% of the vote, and unionist candidates received 29.1%. The Alliance Party did not stand in Omagh in 2001, and independent candidates (mostly the indefatigable socialist Mr McLaughlin) received 3.7% of the vote.

The future

In 2011 Omagh district will merge with Fermanagh to become the new Fermanagh and Omagh District Council. This new district will have a comfortable nationalist majority, based on the results from the 2005 local elections: 61% nationalist to 37% unionist (Sinn Féin alone should get more votes than all unionists combined). These figures may, of course be different in 2011, as the launch of the new Councils will surely stimulate a high turnout, new candidates, and perhaps the return to the area of the Alliance Party. Nonetheless, the new area should have a nationalist council.

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