Friday 27 February 2009

More bad names

Today the Local Government Boundaries Commissioner, Richard Mackenzie, published his revised Provisional Recommendations (originally published on 17 September 2008). While much of the revision concerns minor changes to boundaries, and the kicking into touch of the issue of Irish language names, he has also decided to revise his proposed names for the 11 new district councils.

This blog was not very enthusiastic about the original names proposed for the councils, but Mackenzie's new names are even worse.

In some cases he had originally proposed new shorter versions (Causeway Coast District Council, Mid-Antrim District Council, and Mid-Ulster District Council), but in an unnecessarily backward-looking spirit he had proposed to keep the names of some of the old (and soon to be dissolved) councils, just cobbling together the names of the old councils, such as Newry City and Down District Council, or Fermanagh and Omagh District Council, or Lisburn City and Castlereagh District Council, and so on.

However, following representations from people whose areas were not represented in his original names, he has now turned some of them into real mouthfuls, such as:

  • Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon District Council
  • Newry City, Mourne and Down District Council
  • Causeway Coast and Glens District Council
  • Mid and East Antrim District Council

This is a real display of parish pump politics and paucity of imagination. These names are long, unwieldy and unnecessary. There are many ways in which they could have been shortened – of course there may have been a loss of 'local identity' for those areas whose old council names disappeared, but by attempting to please everyone Mackenzie will end up confusing and annoying many people. The old names did not have to be maintained – they were, after all, only recent creations as local authority names. There are many other ways to foster local identity without imposing long strings of names into council names – counties, rivers, mountains, baronies, the old Irish Tuath (Oriel, Dalrada, etc), and so on. Or why not simply name them after the town in which their offices are located: Derry, Belfast, Coleraine, Cookstown, and so on?

Hopefully Mackenzie will have another change of heart, but this time in the direction of simplicity and user-friendliness.

What an awful name!

So it's official – the UUP's common-law marriage with the English Tories will be known as the 'Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force'.

The announcement of the new name – not the name of a party, yet, but a banner under which joint candidates will stand for election – was reportedly delayed for weeks because of difficulties in deciding whether the word 'Ulster' should appear in the title. The Tories didn't want it, while the unionists did. It seems that the unionists got their way, and the poor Tories will have to pretend to be happy to be called 'Ulster Conservatives'.

For once the Tories were right. The word 'Ulster' is loaded with connotations, and carries a lot of historical baggage. By dispensing with it, the new partnership could have sought moderate, non-sectarian support. But by keeping it, they have virtually ensured that the new partnership will remain trapped within the slowly dwindling 'Ulster Protestant' community. I expect some Northern Irish Tories will be sufficiently disgusted that they will not fully support the partnership. As for the middle ground, or Catholics, the partnership has just ensured that it will receive very little of their support.

Ironically, Reg Empey, UUP leader, said: "We don't believe in a little-Ulster mentality. [ …] We believe in promoting a vision and version of the union which will be attractive to everyone in Northern Ireland." So why, then, was he so insistent on keeping the offensive term 'Ulster' in the title?

And what on earth does that tag-on 'New Force' mean? What purpose does it serve? It sounds like some tacky 1970s paramilitary organisation. It is part of the name, but in reality it is just a poor slogan, combining the clichéd and over-used word 'new' with the vaguely militaristic and threatening word 'force'. Why did they tag it on to their name instead of, for instance, one of their other failed slogans, like: 'simply British' or 'for all of us'? While parties elsewhere in the world are using simply, snappy, easily-remembered names, the media-unsavvy backwoodsmen of unionism have saddled themselves with a long, offensive, and partially pointless name and acronym. The UCU-NF … it really runs off the tongue, doesn't it?

Thursday 26 February 2009

Schools Census 2008-2009

Today the Department of Education released the detailed results of the Schools Census for this academic year (2008-2009). For this blog the particular interest lies in the tables dealing with the religions of pupils, insofar as it provides a preview of the community breakdown of the future Northern Ireland.

The results reinforce the pattern that is visible elsewhere – the proportion of the pupils in Northern Ireland's schools who are Protestant continues to decline, while the proportion who are Catholic remains over 50% and continues to rise.

The proportion of schoolchildren in Northern Ireland who declare themselves to be Protestant or 'other Christian' (a category including the following denominations: Jehovah's Witness, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day saints, or Other Christian) now stands at 40.7%.

The proportion of schoolchildren in Northern Ireland who declare themselves to be Catholic stands at 50.9%.

The graph below shows the historical evolution of these raw Catholic/Protestant proportions taken from the Schools Censuses from the last 10 years:

The remaining 8.4% are made up of non-Christians (0.4%) or 'Other/no religion/not known' (8.0%). In the northern Irish context the non-Christians are largely outside the political debate, and are primarily Chinese, Muslims and Hindus. The 'Other/no religion/not known' are more interesting because they account for one pupil in twelve and their actual community backgrounds will make a considerable difference to the shape of Northern Ireland in the future.

Some people believe that atheists or agnostics are more likely to come from a Protestant community background, on the basis that Protestantism has traditionally been more liberal and that the proportion of people who state 'no religion' both in the Schools Census and the decennial census is higher in majority Protestant areas. Another possibility, though, is that Catholics in Protestant areas (or schools) may be more likely to not want to draw attention to themselves, and thus fail to declare themselves as Catholics. The argument based upon the relative liberalism of Protestantism may have had some merit in the past, but is less likely to be the case currently as the strength of all the churches on their flocks is increasingly weak. It is likely that a significant part of the 'Other/no religion/not known' group is actually from a Catholic community background.

The two graphs below show two possible interpretations of the 'Other/no religion/not known' proportion. In the first, a strictly even breakdown is made (though this, of course, slightly benefits the Protestant score, as it is only four-fifths of the Catholic score in the 'raw' figures. The second graph makes some concession towards those who believe that most of the 'Other/no religion/not known' are from a Protestant community background, and allocated them as 70% Protestant, and only 30% Catholic.

In neither case does the allocation of the 'Other/no religion/not known' significantly alter the inescapable outcome. The proportion of the schoolchildren who are Catholic, or from a Catholic community background, remains considerably higher that that who are Protestant or from a Protestant community background.

And the gap is widening over time.

When you consider that the majority of every year's Schools Census was included in the previous year's exercise – only the previous year's leavers and this year's P1 class are different – the changes visible represent only the net differences in two years out of the complete 14 year cycle. In a nutshell, if the proportion of Protestants has dropped, this means that far fewer of the P1 intake are Protestant than was the case of the previous year's leavers.

The significance of these figures is enormous. It shows that, barring asymmetric migration, in the future Protestants will be a minority of Northern Ireland's population, and Catholics will be a majority. The figures reinforce the decline in the Protestant proportion of the population as a whole seen in the decennial census, and the linked decline in the unionist vote seen in the elections over the last generation. If the two communities continue to vote along religious/community lines, it means that the unionist political project is doomed.

Even if, as some would argue, the 8% 'Other/no religion/not known' represents a centrist non-sectarian group, by definition it cannot come to the aid of the unionist cause. If its adult counterpart votes for the Alliance Party, the Greens, or various independent candidates, then they form part of neither community block, and will take a neutral position on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland. If unionism must rely on the votes of Protestants, as it currently does, its future looks increasingly bleak; if it tries to break out of its community ghetto (as the UUP increasingly claims to be trying to do) then it will have to make far more serious efforts than it is currently making. If nationalism retains its support from the Catholic population it will succeed in outvoting unionism within a generation.

Friday 20 February 2009

You are what you read - Newspaper circulation in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland has five 'native' daily and Sunday newspapers: the Belfast Telegraph, the Irish News, the Sunday Journal, the Sunday Life, and the News Letter. Like most other things in this divided society, these titles are generally identified with one side or the other. Amongst the three dailies, the Belfast Telegraph and the News Letter wear their unionism on their sleeves, while the Irish News is clearly nationalist. The Sunday Life is part of the Belfast Telegraph stable, and the Sunday Journal, though part of the Johnston Press group, has a very clearly nationalist editorial slant. It is generally a Derry local newspaper, though, so is of limited relevance outside that area. In brief, of the five, three are 'unionist' papers, and two are 'nationalist'.

Although many people read two or more papers (especially if they don't have to buy them), and many institutions buy all of the dailies, if people buy only one it is likely to be one that they identify with, and whose editorial position is closest to their own.

The absolute sales figures of the five give the impression of a unionist dominance of the print media in Northern Ireland – the Belfast Telegraph outsells the other papers by a fairly wide margin, clearly sells well even in Catholic areas, and is considered to be a more moderate unionist voice than the News Letter. Perhaps the fact that it is owned by the Dublin-based Independent News and Media group may make it more acceptable across the board. That being said, though, only 87% of its sales are paid for (the rest are given out for free) and its circulation is declining.

The latest circulation figures for all of the newspapers and magazines published in Ireland, released today by ABC, show that sales of almost all Northern Ireland's daily and Sunday newspapers are declining, with the exception of the Irish News.

Over the period December 2007 to December 2008, the circulation figures for the five titles changed as follows;

Belfast Telegraph: -8.1%
Irish News: +0.1%
News Letter: -4.6%
Sunday Life: -6.0%
Sunday Journal: ('NA', though the most recent six months show a decline)

Printed newspapers worldwide are tending to suffer a decline in their sales, so the negative figures above are not too unusual (though for comparison, the Belfast Telegraph's sister paper in the south, the Irish Independent, saw only a 3.9% drop in circulation over the same period).

The slight growth in the circulation of the Irish News during 2008, bucking both local and worldwide trends, could provide an indication of a growth in that newspaper's target market – nationalists – while the above-average declines in the circulations of both unionist daily newspapers could indicate a decline in the numbers of newspaper-buying unionists.

If you are what you read, then newspaper circulation figures in Northern Ireland show that there are more nationalists than a year ago, and fewer unionists.

Friday 13 February 2009

The Glorious Revolution and Mary Stuart

On this day (February 13 in the modern calendar) in 1689 the 'Glorious Revolution' (aka the coup d'état that overthrew King James II) neared its conclusion with the accession of William of Orange and Mary Stuart to the throne of England as joint monarchs (they acceded to the throne of Scotland a few months later). Mary Stuart – James's daughter and heir until his son (the 'old pretender') was born in 1788 – was a Protestant while James was a Catholic.

The Orange Order claims the 'Glorious Revolution', and the supposed religious freedom it brought, as one of the key reasons why it wants Northern Ireland to remain in the UK, and practically deifies King William. Every other Protestant male over a certain age is called William (or Billy), and his image adorns banners, murals and Carrickfergus.

But where is Mary? Why is she absent from the deification, the banners, the murals, and the names of most Protestant women? Where is her statue? If the 'Glorious revolution' was the key event that Orangemen celebrate, Mary was as much responsible as her husband (and cousin) William. They were, after all, joint monarchs – she was not just called the queen because she married the king. Yet she is largely invisible in Orange hagiography. In fact, in Northern Ireland if a woman is called Mary, there is almost complete certainty that she is a Catholic, whereas if a man is called William, he is almost always a Protestant.

It is true that Mary Stuart deferred to her husband, but she was far from a submissive wife, and played a very active role in religious affairs. Is her absence from the modern Orange consciousness a reflection of misogyny, or is it simply because William actually came over to Ireland while Mary consolidated the regime in England?

It is surely time for the Orange Order to rediscover their feminine side.

Thursday 12 February 2009

Crowdsourcing the European Parliament election

Crowdsourcing is where you outsource a task to an undefined, generally large group of people. Democracy is, in a way, a crowdsourcing method of choosing rulers, on the basis that the outcome of a choice made by a million people is, if not better, at least more representative than a choice made by fewer people.

Until the actual election though, anyone interested in knowing how it might turn out is usually limited to a few opinion polls. Happily, though, we have an alternative crowdsource that can provide an indication, via the betting public.

Paddy Power, a betting firm (aka bookie), allows people to place bets on the outcomes of future events, mostly sporting but also political, and the aggregated bets influence the odds. The bookie sets the odds to provide an incentive to betters while trying to avoid losing money. The odds set represent the bookie's best interpretation of the likelihood of an outcome based upon the collective 'wisdom' of the crowd. Since money is at stake people tend to 'vote' as accurately as they can, rather than on party political grounds.

The initial odds being quoted by Paddy Power to the question 'Who will win the most first preference votes?' in the European Parliament election in June is as follows:

Bairbre de Brun: 4-5
Diane Dodds: evens
Jim Nicholson: 10-1
Jim Allister: 14-1
Alban Maginness: 25-1
Steven Agnew: 80-1
Alliance Party: 80-1

[For betting novices, the fractional odds show the multiple of an original bet that the punter wins if the outcome occurs. In other words, if Bairbre de Brun tops the poll, a punter who placed their bet at those odds will get his original stake back, plus four-fifths of that stake, or 180% of the stake. A bet placed on Dodds will see a return of the stake plus its same value, or 200%. As the likelihood becomes less and less likely, the odds go up. If Steven Agnew tops the poll, whoever placed a bet on that happening will win back his stake, plus 80 times the stake.]

What this shows is that, irrespective of the spin and noise created by the political parties and the media, at this early point the average punter tends to think that Sinn Féin will top the poll in June.

This blog will revisit Paddy Power from time to time during the campaign to see how these odds change.

Paddy Power is also taking bets on the very interesting question of how many first preference votes Jim Allister will get. Here the results are:

0 - 10,000: 7-1
10,001 - 20,000: 9-2
20,001 - 30,000: 3-1
30,001 - 40,000: 9-4
40,001 - 50,000: 4-1
50,001 - 60,000: 6-1
60,001 or more: 4-1

These odds show that the average punter sees Allister most likely getting between 20,000 and 30,000 first preference votes, or between 3.5% and 5% depending on the turnout. There is some evidence (4-1) that some punters see him getting a considerably higher score, but it is not clear how many bets these odds are based on. As time goes on, and the number of bets placed increases, the odds should get clearer and the crowdsourcing more accurate. For the DUP, of course, the question of Allister's votes (which otherwise would probably be their votes) is of great importance.

As horse racing sometimes shows, crowdsourcing through betting is not always accurate, but at least it provides an alternative to the opinion polls. It will be interesting to see, when it is all over, how accurately the punters called it.

Unionists can do irony

The Andersonstown News on Monday carried a nice little example of the irrationality of the unionist position. The UDA (who nice unionists abhor, of course) ordered a man "out of the country" for alleged criminality.

But which 'country' was he ordered out of? The UK? Or just Northern Ireland? It was clearly the latter, which shows up the reality of the unionist position at its most ignorant – they are 'loyal' to a vision of Northern Ireland (the fantasy of 'Ulster') rather than to the UK. At their street-thug level they are really just 'little Ulsterites', and therefore an ideal complement to the political 'little Ulsterites' of the DUP.

Monday 9 February 2009

Sammy Wilson, Minister for … what, exactly?

Well, his brief description on the Executive web site says that his responsibilities include:

"Planning control; environment and heritage; protection of the countryside; waste management; pollution control; wildlife protection; local government; local government reform; mineral resources (planning aspects); driver and vehicle testing and licensing; road safety and transport licensing and enforcement."

We already saw last year that his commitment to the 'driver and vehicle testing and licensing' part of his remit was close to nonexistent. The Minster responsible for road safety in Northern Ireland branded the law which saw him fined for riding his motorbike without tax or MoT as "absurd". And he was allowed to keep his job!

Today, the same Minister, wearing his hat as Minister responsible for the environment, has blocked a British government advertisement campaign on climate change, which urges people to reduce energy consumption and cut carbon dioxide output. Wilson wrote to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to say that the advertising campaign Act on CO2 "was not welcome". He explained that he did not believe in its message that "man-made greenhouse gas emissions are the main cause of climate change" and that the campaign was contrary to his personal views.

Now since Mr Wilson's 'personal views' seem to be causing him great trouble in at least two of his areas of responsibility, one has to wonder why he is still in office.

But then, of course, DUP Minister's are never really expected to address the whole of their responsibilities – after all, Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure Gregory Campbell has responsibility, amongst other things, for sport and language diversity, which has not stopped him from using his position to largely ignore the most popular sport in Northern Ireland, and to block the Irish Language Act. The wife of the First Minister has caused worldwide outrage at her blatantly bigoted attitudes towards homosexuality, but at last she wasn't a Minister. Her husband and party leader, whose responsibilities include 'promoting and monitoring implementation of equality of opportunity' was slightly less than fulsome in his condemnation of her remarks.

The DUP in office has proved, time and time again, that they are motivated primarily by negativity – towards modern science, towards diversity, but mainly towards recognition of the Irish dimension of Northern Ireland and its people. The continuing support they receive from the unionist voters serves as a constant reminder of why Northern Ireland needs to be dismantled and consigned to history's dustbin.

Friday 6 February 2009

Squabbling over chairs on the Titanic

For opponents of unionism, these days are almost surreal. It seems that nationalists and others do not have to do anything, because the unionists themselves are happy to tear each other apart.

The screen shots below shows the UUP, DUP and TUV websites as they appeared earlier today.

The UUP, apart from the almost obligatory criticism of Caitriona Ruane, manages to have three separate stories under News headlines that attack the DUP: 'Changing Your Tune Again, Jeffrey', 'UUP Not Losing Identity', and 'Diane Dodds Is Delusional':

The DUP focus more clearly on their tribal ppponents in the SDLP and Sinn Féin, but manage, nonetheless, to have at least two stories attacking the UUP; 'UUP negotiators prove their limited value once again', and 'McNarry wants to cut his own Minister's budget, says Hamilton'.

The TUV, despite (or because of?) its extreme views, manages to criticise the DUP in four of its six stories; 'Allister responds to DUP candidature in Europe', 'Thank you DUP!', '"Name and shame duplicitous politicians" – Allister' and 'DUP position on Eames-Bradley questioned'. In addition, in 'Russell hits out at Craigavon stance on Eames-Bradley', it "hits out" at the other unionist parties in general.

In no single item does the TUV directly address the real enemies of unionism – nationalists and republicans!

It seems that as the electoral support for unionism declines, the in-fighting amongst the various unionist parties increases. Nationalists can only sit back and enjoy the show.

Thursday 5 February 2009


Yesterday Facebook celebrated its fifth birthday. The social networking tool allows people with similar interests to join groups that reflect those interests, and, of course, in many cases these interests are political. There are groups, official or unofficial, that represent all of Northern Ireland's main political parties on Facebook.

The membership of these groups differs widely, though, and they show a picture of the support amongst young people (Facebook's most usual demographic) for the parties that is although far from scientific, interesting nonetheless.

Yesterday, on Facebook's fifth birthday, the membership of the groups was:

  • Sinn Féin – 2259
  • Ógra Shinn Féin – 419
  • Republican Sinn Féin – 373
  • Greens in NI – 291
  • DUP – 122
  • UUP – 92
  • SDLP – 76
  • SDLP Youth – 65
  • Alliance Party – 61
  • Queens University DUA – 38
  • TUV – 2

It seems that the Young Unionists have no group on Facebook. Although Queens University DUA does not represent all of the DUP Jugend it is a sort of youth wing of the party. The list excludes branch groups, or apparent mirror groups – it shows the membership only of the principal groups for each party.

The overall picture is a stark one. Amongst young people it seems that Sinn Féin is far and away the most popular party. In fact, with 80% of the total, republican parties are the outright winners, with the Greens unsurprisingly following. The entire unionist support (7% of the total) is less than that of the Greens.

Many people are members of several groups, which inflates their apparent support. But this works equally or unionist groups as for nationalist groups.

The low level of support on Facebook for the SDLP, the unionist parties, and especially the TUV, may reflect the age profile of those parties' supporters. Bu today's Facebook supporters are tomorrow's voters, so these parties should start to worry.

A party for (not quite) all of us

How well did David Cameron do his homework before he proposed to his blushing fiancée, the UUP? He announced in his joint statement with Reg Empey in July 2008 that:

"There are too many in Northern Ireland who have been put off playing any role (including voting) in politics by the vicious sectarian divisions of recent years. We believe that the creation of a new political and electoral dynamism will attract a surge of support from people in every part of the community who want to leave the past behind and join together to see a 21st Century Northern Ireland in which every citizen is an equal citizen …"

The implication was that his engagement with the UUP would lead to politics that were less viciously sectarian than in recent years. For many, including some in the UUP, this contained a hope that the UUP would become a broad church, capable of attracting support from outside the 'Ulster Protestant' tribe.

Yet, on a very basic point the engagement has run into problems. The name of the blushing fiancée is part of the basic sectarianism of Northern Irish parties. Its inclusion of the word 'Ulster' reflects the position of the party as part of the Protestant sectarian family. While Ulster is the name of the northernmost province of Ireland and contains nine counties, only six counties make up the entity called (correctly, in constitutional terms) Northern Ireland. The use of the word 'Ulster' to refer to these six counties alone is a uniquely unionist habit, and one that is perceived by most Irish people as insulting and contemptuous. It has absolutely no basis in law.

Over the course of Northern Ireland's history as a separate entity the use of the word 'Ulster' to refer to Northern Ireland was a deliberate act to distance Northern Ireland from the south, and to deny the Irishness of the north. A considerable part of Northern Ireland's population not just recognises but celebrates their identity as Irish people. This part includes many unionists. The recognition that Northern Ireland is a part of Ireland no more denies their rights than the recognition that Scots are from Scotland, or Welsh people from Wales. For many people, nationalist, unionist or neither, the use of the word 'Ulster' by the UUP amongst others, contains an implicit denial of their Irishness, and an attempt to airbrush the word Ireland from Northern Ireland.

The Conservative party seem to have understood this, and apparently want their new arrangement with the UUP to be known by a name that does not deliberately insult that part of the population that is proud of their Irishness.

However, the BBC recently carried out a straw-poll of UUP assembly members which revealed that more than half are opposed to dropping Ulster from the name for electoral purposes. "When asked if they would approve an option that would drop Ulster from the name, 10 MLAs, speaking anonymously, were opposed. In fact, a majority of the 10 were strongly opposed."

So the leopard's spots have not changed. A majority of the UUP MLAs are opposed to removing an entirely unofficial, incorrect and insulting adjective from their party name in order to attract voters who are not currently members of the narrow 'Ulster Protestant' tribe. They would prefer to retain this useless and pointless adjective just in order to annoy anyone who has an Irish identity.

And these are the people who David Cameron thinks are going to help him move towards "a new political and electoral dynamism [which] will attract a surge of support from people in every part of the community"? Their thinking is still stuck in a pre-1972 limbo. They cannot move forwards because their whole attitude is still redolent of the old anti-Irish, anti-diversity, anti-Catholic unionist movement of the past.

This issue will be an important test of the UUP-Tory engagement. If Cameron gives in to the UUP's 'little Ulsterism' the project is doomed.

Wednesday 4 February 2009

First thoughts on the European Parliament election

On Thursday 4 June Northern Ireland will vote for its three members of the European Parliament. Although the full list of candidates will not be known for certain until 7 May, the principal parties have already indicated who will stand, and for the minor parties it is frankly of little importance. The election is a game of musical chairs – where previously there were four players and three chairs, now there are five players and still only three chairs.

The players:
DUP – Diane Dodds
Sinn Féin – Bairbre de Brún
UUP/Conservative – James Nicholson
SDLP – Alban Maginness
TUV – Jim Allister

The also-rans:
Alliance Party – have not yet confirmed whether they will stand a candidate
Green Party – Steven Agnew

Issues will, of course, play little or no part in this election. Most voters do not know and do not care where the parties stand on 'Europe', or on the multitude of issues that their MEPs deal with. The election will be a simple headcount both within the two blocks, and between the two blocks.

There are four main areas of interest in the election:
1. the overall unionist-nationalist balance,
2. the break-down of the unionist vote,
3. the break-down of the nationalist vote,
4. the vote for 'other' candidates
These are looked at in more detail below, but first it is useful to put this election in its historical context.

The trend for the unionist vote since the first elections to the European Parliament in 1979 has been downward. From around 59% in 1979 the unionist vote has dropped steadily to the 49% they received in 2004. The evolution of the nationalist vote has been less smooth, but in general it has been upwards, from 31% in 1979 to 42% in 2004. It significantly exceeded its trend in 1999 when a large part of the Alliance Party and 'other' vote went to the SDLP's John Hume in an attempt (which failed) to top the poll. In 1999, while the nationalist vote jumped above its trend, the 'Alliance and other' vote tumbled to 2.3%. In 2004, with Hume gone, the 'Alliance and other' vote recovered, and the nationalist vote reverted to its historical trend.

Much used to be made of Ian Paisley's vote-winning ability, but during his time as an MEP the unionist share of the vote declined constantly, as it did in other elections – local, regional, Westminster. Ironically, the DUP's greatest share of the vote since 1984 came in 2004 when Paisley had retired from Europe and his now nemesis, Jim Allister stood for the DUP, winning 32% of the vote.

There are three seats available, and since the combined votes of the 'Alliance and other' candidates has never exceeded 9.5% – well short of a quota (25%+1) – these votes must be considered to be the core 'neither unionist nor nationalist' vote in Northern Ireland, around 8% on average. Three seats divided amongst four big parties (in the past) must leave one party disappointed. Since the unionist block has always outvoted the nationalist block, and transfers usually stay within blocks, two unionists were elected and only one nationalist. The gap between the two blocks is now much closer, and although unionism will still get more votes than nationalism in 2009, the breakdown of those votes, and the level of transfers will be crucial to deciding whether – in a historical moment – nationalism might snatch a second seat.

The unionist-nationalist balance

The breakdown of the vote in June's European Parliament election between the unionist block and the nationalist block will probably not differ much from the breakdown in other elections. The graph above shows how the two blocks have been approaching parity since the first EP election in 1979, but they have not yet got there.

On the basis of the most recent elections – the Westminster and local elections in 2005, and the Assembly election in 2007 – the relative strengths of the two blocks are approximately: Unionist 50%, Nationalist 43%. The unionist percentage has a downward trend, and the nationalist vote an upward trend. However, the period of time between 2007 and 2009 is too short for any significant change to take place, so it seems inevitable that the unionist block will again outpoll the nationalist block. If there are a high proportion of transfers between the unionist candidates (see below), this should translate again into two unionist seats and one nationalist seat.

The break-down of the unionist vote

One of the most interesting aspects of the election will be the impact of the two major events within unionism since 2004: Jim Allister's breakaway from the DUP and subsequent formation of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), and the common-law marriage between the UUP and the English Tory Party.

Initially derided as a mere flash-in-the-pan by the DUP, or as a temporary usurper of the 'rightful' DUP seat, Jim Allister, by sheer persistence and good timing, has managed to remain a serous threat to the DUP. While few expect him to hold his seat, the DUP are concerned that he will steal their more extremist voters and consign them to an ignominious scramble for the third seat. Allister is playing the same role vis-à-vis the DUP that the DUP itself played vis-à-vis the UUP – that of constantly challenging the other party from a more extreme unionist standpoint. Such a role worked well for the DUP so it is justifiably worried by Allister. The DUP has left such a long string of hostages to fortune in its climb to the top that Allister has a rich seam to mine. And he is mining away, eroding the confidence that extreme unionists used to have in the DUP, and providing them with an alternative. The by-election in Dromore in 2008 showed that while it was still relatively small, the TUV could inflict serious damage on the DUP.

The Paisleyite wing of the DUP is reportedly angry about the manner in which Ian Paisley senior was deposed in 2008, and still hopes to get Ian Paisley junior elected as MP for North Antrim as his father's replacement at the next Westminster election. If the DUP candidate for the EP is identified with the 'modernist' (or non-Paisleyite) wing, some of the Paisleyite voters may vote TUV instead of DUP.

If the TUV manages to steal even 20% of the DUP vote (in Dromore it took 40% of the combined TUV/DUP total; but this was the only election so far in which both parties have competed, so it is not a good basis for predicting the outcome of their next competition), then the DUP might fall below a quota (for the first time ever in a European election). If Sinn Féin poll well, they might top the poll. The DUP may then suffer the double indignity of failing to keep Sinn Féin from topping the poll and having to depend on transfers from minor party candidates, which might not come. When the DUP candidate is eventually elected, he or she may have lost considerable face in the process.

The not-quite marriage between the UUP and the Conservative Party is being talked up incessantly by both sides. However, the 'joint' candidate is none other than the same old UUP candidate whose popularity has been constantly waning for years, and was only barely ahead of the SDLP in 2004. The UUP are desperately hoping for a 'bounce' from their not-quite marriage, but they may be severely disappointed. If a lot of TUV votes do not transfer to the UUP – a party most TUV voters heartily despise – the UUP risks losing its seat to the SDLP. Such an outcome would serious damage the credibility of the UUP-Tory link-up.

A second and less often cited ambition for the UUP/Tory link-up is the hope that it will make James Nicholson more attractive to Alliance Party voters. The eventual winner of the third seat is likely to be decided on the transfers from the 'Alliance and other' voters, and so anything that can make Nicholson less repellent to the centre can only help him. Positioning the UUP candidate (for, despite the hype about the nearly-a-marriage, that is what Nicholson is) as a part of a resurgent soft-right movement may be enough to earn him some extra Alliance transfers, and to keep him ahead of the SDLP's Alban Maginness.

The break-down of the nationalist vote

Another party hoping for a bounce is the SDLP, though their chances are worse than the UUP. Their candidate, the unsuccessful Alban Maginness, lacks any particular appeal – even in his own North Belfast constituency he has been losing ground over the past few years. Although Sinn Féin's Bairbre de Brún is hardly a dynamic MEP she is guaranteed a sufficient vote to get elected – and possibly to top the poll, to the DUP's anger. The SDLP vote should hold steady, though, and if other circumstances went their way, they could just sneak past the UUP for the third seat. Again, much depends upon the transfers of the Alliance Party voters.

The vote for 'other' candidates

In 2004 the assorted 'neither unionist nor nationalist' parties and groups coalesced around a 'unity' candidate – John Gilliland. The novelty of such a candidacy ensured publicity, and some of the more gullible 'centrists' started fantasising about winning a seat. Gilliland got 6.6% of the vote and promptly disappeared back into well-deserved obscurity. But it seems to have led to an expectation of a centrist candidate in 2009, combining the Alliance Party and other disparate groups. So far no such candidate has appeared, and the Alliance Party are keeping their intentions a well guarded secret. The only 'unity' name to have been leaked is Eleanor Gill, whose qualifications for the job are as small as Gilliland's were. She seems to be 'acceptable' to the centre groups because she is (politely speaking) a non-nationalist Catholic.

The Green party have already broken with the 'unity' candidate idea by naming their own candidate, the utterly unknown and unelectable Steven Agnew. He can expect to equal the Greens 2004 total of less than 1%. Hopefully they will not waste too much of the earth's resources on his hopeless campaign.

Historically the 'Alliance and other' vote has tended to be around 8-9% in EP elections, and this time should be no different. The real interest is where their votes transfer to. In 2004 it is likely that more of Gilliland's votes transferred to Nicholson (UUP) than to Morgan (SDLP), but a lot did not transfer at all (it is hard to be sure, as Gilliland's votes were combined with the Greens and Eamon McCann's). In 2009, if the 'Alliance and other' votes go slightly more to the SDLP, if the TUV achieve a reasonable score (say 6% of the total vote), and if the TUV votes fail to fully transfer, this could put the SDLP ahead of the UUP for the final seat.

A possible vote and transfer scenario (not a prediction) might be: