Friday 3 April 2009

The Grim Reaper (again)

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.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

It was Sammy Mc Nally what done it says.


what is your estimate of the net increase in Nationalist voters for the last 2 years based on the higher % of Nationalist background voters turning 18.

What do you think the current % split is. I suspect that ( as discussed previuously) that the Unionist % at the Euro election wil be disappointingly high about 48% with increased Unionist turnout compensating for declinig numbers.

If the % is 48 do you not think some of your assumtions/assessments based on death rates and school stats will need to be revised?

Horseman said...


I haven't really attempted a calculation of the net increase, but if you take the fact that there are a few thousand more Catholic 18 year-olds than Protestant 18 year-olds, then clearly there are likely to be more new nationalist votes than unionist votes. However, voter turnout at 18 is low, so the actual advantage isn't great. As these 18 year-olds grow up and start to vote more consistently, then their effect will be seen.

If the effect of deaths is a net gain of around 3,750 for nationalism per year, then I guess you could easily round that up to 5,000 if the new voters are included. That's 50,000 every decade! If doesn't bode well for unionism.

The current unionist proportion is in the range 47-52%, but all sorts of factors play a role. Jim Allister (if he ever gets some traction) could lead to a higher unionist turnout, whereas I cannot see any real excitement in the natonalist camp that will get their voters out.

I'm not really too concerned about whether unionism gets 48% or 55%, to be honest. It's the longer-turn trend that counts. There will be blips along the way, but the trendline is fairly consistent.

Anonymous said...

You say the gap between the unionist block and the nationalist block in 2007 assembly election was was 42,121. What was the gap in the last euro election and what is it likey to be this year?

Horseman said...

The gap between the two blocks in the 2004 EP election was 34,825. However, the turnout was low (51.72%), so direct comparisons are hard to make.

This year the result will depend, as always, on the turnout. If, as is being hinted, Brown uses his G20 bounce to spring a simultaneous general election, then the turnout would be higher. But if not, then unless someone livens up the EP campaign I expect that the turnout will be low (even below 50%?). In this case the gap may narrow somewhat, but not by the full 5,000 per year that the stats may predict. I don't want to make any predictons at this stage - maybe later.

Anonymous said...

It was Sammy Mc Nally what done it says.

It might be an idea to speculate/calculate as to the % Nationalist turnout using the constituency figures when they become available.

Also this election should be a little more exciting than the last because of the TUV having a bit of momentum and the Tories involved - so you would expect an increase in the Unionist turnout and maybe some interest from Nationalism with Paddy Power making SF favourites to top the poll, dragging out a few extra votrs (from both sides) as you pointed out earlier.

Anonymous said...

the end is near...

hoboroad said...

the union is dead and buried all it needs is pallbearers the DUP seem to fit the bill