The statistics on deaths in 2009, published by NISRA on 25 March 2010, are remarkable only in one respect. The death rate has gone down again, and is now at its lowest ever point. What this means, quite simply, is that proportionately fewer people are dying – on the contrary they are living, and for longer and longer.
As a consequence a greater proportion of deaths – 31% in 2009 – are to the very elderly, those aged over 85.
What this means in political terms is, as yet, unexplored. It is a known fact that the Protestant (and thus unionist) proportion of the population rises with age. Of those aged over 85, for example, over 67% are of Protestant community background (according to the 2001 census, when, as mere 76-year-olds they thus declared themselves). Their grandchildren (those aged 20 in 2001) represent only 47% of their age cohort!
So clearly the elderly are more unionist than the young, and research tells us that older voters are more likely to vote than younger voters. But there is no research on the voting habits of the extremely elderly. People in relatively good health are likely to vote, but what of the bed-ridden, extremely infirm and those suffering from dementia?
There may be a peak of electoral turnout somewhere around the age of 70 – and thereafter a drop off. Common sense would suggest this, but no research has been done to demonstrate it.
Unionism obviously is enjoying a windfall from longevity, but if it turns out that the turnout rate for the extremely elderly is lower than that of those slightly younger, then that windfall may not be as valuable as it seems. Since unionism does appear, in recent elections, to be getting a smaller proportion of the vote than the Protestant proportion of the electorate, then perhaps the effect of the elderly may already be visible. Unionist politicians like to imagine that there is a ‘reserve army’ of ‘garden centre Prods’ who will come to their assistance if ever their precious union is threatened – but maybe those missing Protestant voters are not in the garden centre. Maybe they’re in the old folks homes and the hospices.