Death, as they say, is part of life. So this blog will return to it time and time again. Every year NISRA (the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency) publishes detailed figures on the numbers, rates, and locations of deaths in the previous year. The figures for 2008 were published on 19 March, and show a few interesting features:
- after a fairly steady decline since 1980, death rates seemed to bottom out in 2005, and since then have been slowly increasing again. In fact, given that the population is increasing (as are births) the rate of increase masks a more important increase in the number of deaths.
- the age at which people are dying is increasing. The percentage of deaths that are of people aged under 75 was around 55% in 1980, but has dropped continuously since then, and people under 75 now account for only 40% of the deaths. In contrast, people aged 85 and over have increased amongst the deaths, and now account for 30%. (The other 30% of deaths are obviously aged 75-85).
The point of interest in these statistics is that, as the Census clearly shows, older age groups in Northern Ireland are more Protestant than younger age groups, and thus, presumably, more unionist. As the age of death steadily increases, this ensures that the proportion of the deaths that are unionists is higher than would be the case if the average age of death was static. This is because at any static age in Northern Ireland the population is becoming gradually more Catholic (and therefore presumably nationalist).
The average life expectancy in 1980 was around age 70, and at that time probably around 80% of people at that age were Protestant – and so deaths of 70-year-olds in 1980 were split 80/20 between Protestants and Catholics.
However, in 2008 the religious breakdown at age 70 had become 66/34, and thus if this was still the average age at death, then only 66% of deaths would be Protestant.
Life expectancy has increased since 1980 (to 71.8 years for males and 78.5 years for females) and now averages 75. At this age, in 2008, slightly less than 70% are Protestant. So it is likely that around 70% of deaths in 2008 were Protestants, rather than the 66% that would have been the case if life expectancy had not increased.
To cut a long story short, the majority of deaths are likely to have been unionist voters, as has always been the case since the foundation of Northern Ireland. Since the last Assembly election in 2007 some 30,000 deaths have occurred, and 70% of them were Protestants. Not all Protestants vote unionist, of course, and many people do not vote at all, but older people generally have a higher rate of turnout at elections than younger people.
If we assume that 20,000 of the deaths were voters (a turnout rate slightly higher than the average), then we could estimate a loss of 14,000 Protestant voters, and a loss of 6,000 Catholic voters. Given the relatively small proportion of the vote received by the Alliance Party and others, it would not be unsafe to assume that the electoral gap between the unionist and nationalist blocks has closed by around 7,500 since the last Assembly election, purely due to deaths.
The gap between the unionist block and the nationalist block in 2007 was 42,121. To lose almost a fifth of that gap in only two years should be a matter of concern to unionism. As new voters (at age 18) are more Catholic than Protestant this means that the gap may be closing even faster.
Time is running out for unionism.