Tuesday 11 May 2010

North Belfast in Sinn Féin’s sights

After Thursday’s Westminster election it is clear that Sinn Féin’s N° 1 target next time must be North Belfast. This blog remarked, almost 18 months ago that:

“Dodds [… ] could lose his seat, if not at the next election, then at the one that follows it”
Thursday was the ‘next election’ and Dodds held his seat, but not easily. True, he received 14,812 votes (40.0%) to Gerry Kelly’s 12,588 (34.0%). But the gap between the two ‘blocks’ – unionist and nationalist – narrowed to little more than a margin of error:

It appears that Dodds had been kept afloat in 2001 and 2005 by the absence (actual in 2001, virtual in 2005) of the Alliance Party. But now that they have returned to life in the constituency unionism’s decline has become clearer. With only 47.7% of the vote unionism is perilously close to being overtaken by nationalism, which is now on 46.3%. Although Fermanagh and South Tyrone is a poor role model for urban North Belfast, the ability of nationalists to unite around a single candidate if they feel that a seat should be theirs should not be underestimated.

Unionism’s problem in North Belfast – and thus Dodds’ problem – is that the Protestant population is older, and thus prone to higher ‘natural decrease’ (i.e. deaths) than the Catholic population. As this blog has pointed out before, in North Belfast (as it was in 2001, before the boundary changes) over 70% of old people were Protestant, whereas that religious group falls to around 40% amongst young people. Amongst the young – who are now starting to vote – Catholics comprise over 50% of the cohort.

The turnout rate increased significantly in 2010, to 56.5%, from the 45.6% recorded on 2005. Both blocks benefited – but nationalism benefited far more than unionism, adding 3,435 votes while unionism added only 1,560. Whether this implies a greater surge of enthusiasm amongst nationalists than amongst unionists, or simply a relatively greater number of potential nationalist voters, we cannot yet say. Perhaps unionists were also motivated, but too many of their habitual voters were simply dead. Or perhaps the nationalist parties – in particular Sinn Féin – were simply more determined to get their voters registered and get them to the polling booths.

If the votes received by the two blocks are looked at as proportions of the electorate, we can see the following:

Apart from in 2005, when turnout appears to have been abnormally high, the pattern is one of nationalist stability, with the two parties receiving a vote equivalent to around 23-26% of the electorate. The (linear) trend is going up, however. But for unionism, if 2001 is excluded as well, the trend is clearly downward, and at a fast rate.

Unionism is still slightly ahead in North Belfast, but on the basis of the demographic profile of the constituency, and the trends in voting patterns, 2010 represents probably the last time it will be ahead. In another 4 or 5 years this will be a nationalist plurality seat (if not an outright majority seat). Whether nationalism comes together successfully, as in FST, to claim its prize we will have to wait and see. Next year’s Assembly elections will give another opportunity to examine the evolution in this constituency.


Anonymous said...

Sammy Mc Nally,

Deputy Dodsy seemed to be suggesting that SF needed to get this seat this time or they would not get it at all(well he would say that wouldnt he) and people were also talking up the boundary change as having been significant even though it was very insignificant voter terms terms. However, if the Nationalist population is continuing to rise surely most are moving out as there are very few housing developments in the area. Does the same also apply to South Belfast?

Faha said...

It appears that all future speculation on the results of future Westminster elections will need to be put on hold. There was an article in the May 13th edition of the Guardian by Patrick Wintour on this matter. David Cameron has announced plans to reduce the Westminster Parliament from the current 650 seats down to 585 ( a 10% reduction ). He will also require that the Boundary Commission equalise the number of voters in each constituency so that it does not vary by more than 3.5% to 5% among constituencies. Northern Ireland would drop to 15 seats and the average number of voters per constituency would increase to 77,642. Based on those numbers there will be radical changes to the boundaries in Northern Ireland. The 5 western consituencies of Foyle, East Derry, West Tyrone, Mid Ulster and Fermanagh-South Tyrone only have enough voters for 4 constituencies. Newry and Armagh, Upper Bann, South Down, and North Antrim would require only minor changes. North Down would have to be expanded to include the entire Ards Peninsula and part of Newtownards. The 4 Belfast constituencies would need to be combine into only 3 new constituencies since they only have enough voters for 3. Of course, this will have major unknown implication for any Assembly elections after 2011.

Sammy Morse said...

A rare solipcism here horseman - turnout actually fell slightly this time to from 57.8%, itself a significant drop from the mid 60s or so traditionally recorded here.

Also, Faha, there is no reason why altered Westminster boundaries need have any effect on Stormont. Scotland and Wales both use different boundaries for different elections, there's nothing sacred about boundaries for elections to the House of Commons, as I hardly ought to need to remind a Shinner...

Horseman said...

Except, Sammy Morse,; for the fact that the Assembly boundaries are specified as being those of the 'Parliamentary constituencies' (NI Act, article33):

"The members of the Assembly shall be returned for the parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland. Each constituency shall return six members."

Of course the NI act can be amended, but why not simply reduce the size of the Assembly as well as the number of MPs?