Tuesday 18 May 2010

The Greening of South Belfast

In the past South Belfast was a safe unionist seat. It contained areas inhabited by the comfortable Protestant middle class, as well as rougher worker class – but still mainly Protestant – areas. Small pockets of Catholics and nationalists existed, but were marginal.

However, a combination of free education and improving equality led to increasing numbers of middle-class Catholics – and many of them also wanted to live in the nicer areas off the Lisburn Road, the Malone Road, or in Stranmillis. Queens graduates, already familiar with the Holy Land from their student days, perhaps sought to remain in the area if they found jobs in Belfast. Little by little the Catholic proportion of the population in South Belfast grew.

In the 2001 Census, the statistics on Community Background (religion or religion brought up in) showed the scale of the Catholic influx. Of those aged over 75, around 80% were Protestant – however amongst lower age groups the proportion of Catholics increased until, around the age of 40, it starts to equal or exceed that of Protestants. Amongst the student-age population the Catholic proportion exceeds that of Protestants, but many of these are transient residents of the constituency.

Tellingly, amongst the children, Catholics exceed Protestants at the youngest ages – indicating an increased tendency amongst young Catholics to settle in the area. The proportion claiming no religion also increases at these youngest ages, and we will have to wait until after the next census to try to understand which religion (if any) these children are being brought up in.

This increase in the Catholic proportion of South Belfast's population had its inevitable impact on the politics of the constituency. Forty years ago – when those over-75s were in their thirties – South Belfast was over 70% unionist. This is entirely consistent with the age profile of those aged over 50 in the graph above – only these would have been in the electorate in 1970. But as time passed, the decreasing Protestant proportion, and the increasing Catholic proportion, meant that the unionist proportion of the vote declined, and the nationalist proportion increased:

The spike in 1986, of course, represents the anti-Anglo-Irish Agreement by-elections, which were boycotted by many nationalists, so are not truly representative. Otherwise the trend in the unionist proportion is almost uniformly downward. The nationalist trend is generally upward – creeping closer and closer to the unionist proportion until May 6 2010, when the nationalist vote – for the first time ever in South Belfast – exceeded the unionist vote (by 16 votes).

The election results shown in the graph above are for the constituency as it was configured at the times of the elections – boundary revisions mean that it is not always the same area, but the bulk of the constituency has remained largely unchanged.

In 2005, for the first time ever, South Belfast was won by a nationalist candidate – the SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell. Unionism, accustomed to 'owning' South Belfast, contorted itself in the hope of wresting it back in 2010, but ultimately failed when McDonnell was the only nationalist candidate.

There is little reason to expect a freezing, still less a reversal, of the greening of South Belfast. The older age-groups remain predominantly Protestant, and as they die they will be replaced in the electorate by a more mixed group. A majority of Northern Ireland's students, and thus its graduates, are Catholic and many will probably continue to settle in South Belfast.

Obviously turn-out can influence the outcome of future elections – if unionist turn-out is higher than nationalist turn-out they may again win a majority of the vote – but this appears to be a declining possibility. A 'unionist unity' candidate may still win South Belfast at the next Westminster election, unless the Sinn Féin abstention becomes a tradition. Finally, if the number of Westminster seats in Northern Ireland is reduced, this will obviously have an impact on South Belfast, perhaps leading to an entirely different constituency with more Protestant-majority districts, and thus a new unionist majority. But this is early days for such speculations.

At present, and in its current shape, South Belfast is a constituency that is visibly greening.


Anonymous said...

Some references to this blog here:


Paddy Canuck said...

Hiya, Horseman,

I'm wondering if a rise in the Catholic population in South Belfast in particular, or Northern Ireland in generally, necessarily means a rise in hardcore nationalism (or I guess what we might call republicanism). These kids are growing up in an Ulster that's rather different from what existed in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Their experience of the place might not be so negative as to cause their default inclination to be towards a united Ireland to the abandonment of what is, let's face it, still seen as an advantageous link to the UK. What are your observations on trends beyond the voting box and into the constitutional arrangements things?

Paddy Canuck said...

"So the existence of unionism in normal, everyday politics is a nonsense – worse, it represents a narrow negative reactionary attitude, the precise antithesis of the ‘Britishness’ that unionism claims to belong to."

Once again, Horseman, you touch it with a needle. You have a real flair for spotting the logic bombs. :)

Horseman said...

Paddy Canuck,

Yes, that is a very valid point, and is also no doubt something that is exercising unionist minds. I'm certain it lay behind much of the thinking on UCUNF, and a generation earlier on the creation of the Alliance Party. Unionism basically believes that as Catholics become better-off they will become unionists. But reality doesn't show that to be the case.

In any case the new Ireland (N and S) will not be like the past anyway. Nowhere is like the 1960s any more, and Irishness evolves too. It is not necessary to be batonned on the head to be proud of your country, or to wish it to be re-united. In fact soft nationalism may become more widespread as people feel more self-confident, and as the IRA's war slips further into the past.

As 'Irishness' becomes the majority nationality in the north, I expect people to be much less defensive about it, and to take it much more for granted. As economics, geography, sport, culture, and so on, blur the border (which is fast becoming invisible on the ground), a point will come when reunification is simply natural, and unionism will seem totally archaic. Perhaps by then nation-states will have so little power than noone will really notice or care - the EU is a fast-moving project, despite the Brits desperate foot on the brake. Who knows what 2020 will bring - heck, I can't even tell what I'll be doing tomorrow!


Anonymous said...

Sammy Mc Nally asks,

are there any Nationalist woking class areas in SB?

Horseman said...

Sammy Mc Nally,

The Markets, of course. Also the Lower Ormeau Road.

Urban Lander said...

Intergration is the way forward not discrimination.

Ciarán said...

Whilst the 6 counties obviously aren't what they were in the 80s, neither is the Republic - financial crisis aside.

hoboroad said...


Anonymous said...

The argument that a Catholic will become unionist if he has a job and a house has been repeated in vain for 50 years (since Terence O'Neill in fact).
John Taylor peddled that myth.
So does the Belfast Telegraph.

The mood music is very different from say the 1980s. SF in Stormont IS important and crossing the "border" without any visual sign of a border is a key thing too.
Customs officials at Portadown Station.....ah those were the days.
Yes certainly the Republic has changed. But even more obviously the North has.
My constant view of 40 years watching the Alliance Party (even pre AP New Ulster Movement) is that they were a bunch of chancers but even they get some credit for pragmatism.
They are "negative" in the sense that they only believe in NOT rocking the boat.
They were happy not to rock it when it was "unionist". And happy not to rock it when it is as it is now.
And they will go along with whatever happens over the next few years.
Thats how they are.
Any growth in support for the AP (so long as it comes from unionist side of the house) is not a concern. Just evidence of an inevitable transition.
Hate to say this but AP might actually be "useful"