Thursday 3 June 2010

Fermanagh questions

A reader asked, in a comment on the recent post on Fermanagh and South Tyrone – whether there was any real proof of the 'greening of the west' in the electoral figures for that constituency:

"… doesn't the fact that the Nationalist and Unionist populations of Fermanagh have voted in more or less equal numbers since Partition rather undermine the idea of a fast-growing Nationalist population? Or to put it another way, why hasn't Fermanagh greened like the rest of the West?"
The situation in FST masks two different realities – the constituency comprises the whole of Country Fermanagh (aka Fermanagh District), and much of Dungannon borough (it used to comprise all of it, but the Coalisland area was moved to Mid Ulster in the 1990s).

The Fermanagh part of the constituency shows a very clear period of nationalist under-voting, just like the figures for for the whole Westminster constituency. But Dungannon Borough does not show such a period of under-voting. There are electoral influences at work in Fermanagh that appear to be unique to that county.

The period of nationalist under-voting in Fermanagh is evident from the graph below, which shows the results of the nine district council elections from 1973 to 2005:

It is clear, thus, that the withdrawal of large number of nationalists from active involvement in politics was not limited to Westminster, following the traumas of the Hunger Strikes and Bobby Sands election. Many also withdrew from voting in district council elections during the same period.

In 2001, however, they returned to the ballot boxes, in the local elections as in the Westminster elections, and the numerical superiority of the nationalist community was demonstrated again.

What shows the 'greening' of Fermanagh more than the fluctuations of the nationalist vote is the steady decline in the unionist vote after 1989. The unionist vote as a share of the electorate was fairly constant from 1973 to 1989, at around 38%. After 1989, though, it has fallen in every election and by 2005 was just over 31%. At the current rate oif decline it would be below 30% when the next elections are held. This steep decline is a combination of two factors: a general reduction in the turnout rate, and a numerical decline in the number of unionist voters in the county.

Turnout in 1989 was 80%, but in 2005 it was 73.1% - a falling away of 8.6% of the voters (calculated as: (80-73.1)/80). If it is assumed that both communities suffered a decline in voter motivation, than their shares of the electorate should have declined by around the same 8.6% - but unionism's share declined by 19.6%.

Nationalism's share actually increased by 10.9% over the same period, but 1989 is a bad starting point as it fell within the period of nationalist withdrawal. However, even compared with its high-point in 1981 the nationalist share has declined by only 5.3%, while turnout since 1981 had dropped by 13.4% (it was 84.4% in 1981) – implying a real increase in the nationalist share.

Using the share of the electorate is a more accurate measure than using share of the actual vote, because a community's share of the electorate is not dependent upon the ebbs and flows of the other community. The drop in the unionist share of the electorate represents a fall in the unionist share of the electorate and/or its interest in voting. The fact that the drop in the unionist share is far greater than the overall fall in turnout implies strongly that its underlying share of the electorate is dropping.

To answer the original question, therefore, the nationalist and unionist populations of Fermanagh appear, since 1989 at least, to be diverging quite quickly. The unionist share of the county's population appears to be shrinking – as the demographic figures suggest – and the nationalist share appears to be increasing – as the demographic figures also suggest. Fermanagh is 'greening' like the rest of the west – perhaps at a different speed and in its own way – but that is, of course, typical of Fermanagh.

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