As last year (Part 1 and Part 2), this blog will examine the changes in the sizes of the two main religious blocks (Protestant and Catholic) during 2008 in order to get some idea of the changes in the relative sizes of the two main political blocks (unionist and nationalist).
Since we do not have any reliable statistics on migration, we are left with only the other components of the 'natural' evolution of the population to look at: births and deaths. In the context of politics, of course, a voter is 'born' at chronological age 18!
NISRA published their Press Notice on Deaths in Northern Ireland in 2008 in March, which provides the actual number of deaths for each age band (in Table 3). Combining this with the results of the 2001 Census (Table S306: Age By Sex And Community Background (Religion Or Religion Brought Up In)), and moving the 2001 cohorts forward to more closely match their actual ages in 2008, it is possible to estimate the religious (and thus political) affiliations of the deceased people, and thereby to estimate the relative losses for each of the main political blocks.
The result is as follows. Of the 14,907 deaths in 2008, around 5,321 are likely to have been Catholic, 9,388 Protestant, and 198 'other' or no religion. From a political perspective, of course, only voters matter, so if we take only those of voting age, around 5,186 were Catholic, 9,270 Protestant, and 176 'other' or no religion. So, in the course of the single year 2008 unionism lost 4,067 more potential votes than nationalism through death.
In the 2007 Assembly elections unionism won 335,888 votes (48.7% of the total), to nationalism's 293,767 (42.6% of the total). The gap between the two main blocks was therefore 42,121 votes. In the 2007 Assembly election the turn-out was only 61.9%, so the 4,067 potential votes would normally represent only 2,518 actual votes (61.9% x 4,067). However, older people have a higher than average turnout rate, and thus the real losses to the two blocks through death is actually higher. There are a number of studies that show that older people are very likely to vote (in the order of 85%), while younger people have turnout rates of barely over 50%. So, out of the loss of 4,067 potential voters due to deaths the actual net loss to unionism may have been 3,254 actual votes, or 7.7% of its 2007 advantage. If the evolution of the electorate was dependent on deaths alone, unionism's lead would be cut to zero within 13 years!
But there is another factor - the new voters that the two main political blocks can expect to gain as voters reach their 18th birthdays.
This is a fairly easy calculation, as the people who turned 18 in 2008 will largely be those who were 11 in 2001, when the Census recorded their religions (in Table S306: Age By Sex And Community Background (Religion Or Religion Brought Up In)). Migration may also play a small part, but since 18 year-olds who move (to university, for instance) tend to remain registered at their home address, if they vote at all, it is likely to be in the same place that they lived as children. The religious break-down of 11 year-olds in 2001 was as follows: Catholic – 12,902 (49.7%), Protestant – 11,904 (45.8%), other religion or none – 1,157 (4.5%).
So around 25,963 new voters came of age in 2008. For 1,157 of them no real conclusions can be drawn, but for the vast majority this blog's working hypothesis (reminder: that (constitutional) political preferences in the north of Ireland are very closely related to religious affiliation) tends to indicate a net gain for nationalism of 998 potential voters (though remember their low turn-out rate). If we combine these figures with those for deaths, we can calculate a rough balance sheet for 2008, taking the votes in the 2007 Assembly election, adding the new voters and subtracting the deaths. Allowance is made for the different turnout rates of younger and older people. While no data on this has been published specifically for Northern Ireland - a very politicised society - evidence from Britain shows that youthful disaffection is massive. This analysis will take this into account by estimating a conservative turnout rate of 80% for the older voters, and 50% for new voters.
The calculations below include the balance sheets for 2007, as calculated last year (Part 1 and Part 2):
2007 Assembly election: 293,767 (42.6% of the total)
2007 gains - New voters: 13,352 x 50% = 6,676
2007 losses - Deaths (voting age only): 4,874 x 80% = 3,899
2008 gains - New voters: 12,902 x 50% = 6,451
2008 losses - Deaths (voting age only): 5,321 x 80% = 4,257
New total: 298,738
2007 Assembly election: 335,888 votes (48.7% of the total)
2007 gains - New voters: 11,941 x 50% = 5,970
2007 losses - Deaths (voting age only): 9,517 x 80% = 7,614
2008 gains - New voters: 11,904 x 50% = 5,952
2008 losses - Deaths (voting age only): 9,388 x 80% = 7,510
New total: 332,686
(3) Others or no religion
2007 Assembly election: 60,658 votes (8.8% of the total)
2007 gains - New voters: 1,110 x 50% = 555
2007 losses - Deaths (voting age only): 145 x 80% = 116
2008 gains - New voters: 1,157 x 50% = 579
2008 losses - Deaths (voting age only): 176 x 80% = 141
New total: 61,535
At the end of 2008, therefore, we might have expected a voting electorate of 692,959, of whom: 298,738 will vote nationalist (43.1%), 332,686 will vote unionist (48.0%), and 61,535 will vote for other candidates (8.8%).
The gap between nationalism and unionism, 42,121 votes in the 2007 Assembly election, would be reduced to 33,948, representing a reduction in this gap of 8,173. In only two years, therefore, unionism would have lost over 19% of its numerical superiority over nationalism.
2009, of course, allowed us an opportunity to test these assumptions, but in the European Parliament election the turn-out was disappointingly low, making any comparisons with 2007 unsafe. Nonetheless, it was instructive to notice that the percentages that voted for the three blocks were very similar to those calculated above (unionist 49.0%, nationalist 42.2%, and others 8.8%), and the gap between the unionist and nationalist totals was 32,763.
Last year we estimated that unionism had less than 10 years of numerical superiority left. The updating of the statistics to include 2008 shows that this estimate still stands, but since one of those years has now passed, unionism probably only has nine years left before it is equalled or overtaken by nationalism. This is a purely statistical calculation and turn-out rates or 'novelties' (like the TUV) may influence the actual outcomes at each election – but in the long run the trend will probably continue, unless one or other block succeeds in attracting votes from its rival politico-ethno-religious group.