Thursday 3 June 2010

The 'west' – 40 years a-greening

The previous blog, in response to a question on the 'greening' of Fermanagh, raised the issue of the 'greening' of the 'west' as a whole.

A series of comparable elections – from 1973 to 2005 – allows us to look closely at the political evolution of the district council areas, which have remained largely unchanged. For the purposes of this blog 'the west' will be considered to be the area covered by Cookstown, Derry, Dungannon, Fermanagh, Limavady, Magherafelt, Omagh and Strabane districts – for which the results of the nine elections from 1973 to 2005 are available.

  • 'The west' is not, of course, the west – that starts on the other side of the Shannon, but for this blog's purposes the term will be used for the western half of Northern Ireland.
  • Whether Derry and Limavady are 'the west', or the north-west is a matter of judgement. The blog includes them.
  • For some early elections candidates stood under a variety of labels, or as independents. Where possible, they (and their voters) have been considered to be unionist, nationalist or neither on the basis of later political affiliations, or if the patterns are clear, from the transfers of votes to or from them.
  • The further back in time one looks, the less clear the picture. For the last few elections, though, the mist has cleared somewhat and the figures are thus more reliable.
The period from 1973 to 2005 represents almost 40 years – a generation and a half. It is a short period in historical terms, even if 1973 looks like pre-history to many today. Yet even in this generation-and-a-half the changes in 'the west' are clear to see.

Firstly, in terms of the share of the vote that the two main blocks received:

In 1973 – hard though it is now to believe it – unionism polled more votes in the west of Northern Ireland than nationalism did. This has changed steadily, and by 2005 the balance was clearly in nationalism's favour (almost 2 to 1).

Share of the vote allows the actions of other candidates to have an impact on the apparent strength of a block, though. It is useful, thus, to look at the share of the electorate (i.e. all those eligible to vote) that the blocks receive:

This shows that the share of the population of the 'west' as a whole that votes unionist has dropped from a high of 34.8% in 1981 to only 24.4% in 2005. From more than a third to less than a quarter in barely a generation – unionism is in serious trouble in the 'west'.

At the same time nationalism has seen its share of the electorate rise from 30% to 45%. Whether this is due to demographic increase in its 'natural' community (i.e. Catholics) or its ability to attract the votes of those who voted for centre or independent candidates in the past is immaterial – both types of recruits contribute to the 'greening' of the electorate.

The nationalist population is growing – as the demographic figures predict that it should – and the unionist population is stagnant or shrinking, as its birth rate barely matches its death rate. Neither of these factors is likely to change much in the next few years, so the 'greening' of the 'west' ought to continue. Whether there will be another local election using the same boundaries is, however, less certain.

(Sources: readers can find the full unedited results of all elections since 1973 on the Electoral Office web site at: Edited and commented (though sometimes incorrect) versions are to be found on Nicholas Whyte's site at:


Anonymous said...

what is clear though, is the more stats are brought up, the greater the dependence on a single statistic:

Irish republicanism over all others, 51% or however.

Good luck with those extrapolations horse.

Colm said...

Good article Horseman.

I briefly looked into the most recent election results by region. One of the more interesting highlights was that Nationalism in Belfast outvoted Unionism by 5000. It seems the greening of the east is sprouting from the mouth of the Lagan.

Daniel said...

Good article Horseman, again.

You see a lot of figures bandied about, but you do seem to take all factors into consideration.

Ivan said...

How are you factoring in the 17,000 odd Alliance votes?

Anonymous said...


Thats a good point and that is the new enlarged Belfast.Only a couple of wards up near the uu are not included. you could probably get those 5000 votes and a couple thousand more default unionist votes for long in EB.

It however proves a myth to people like McCann and his ilk who claim that Belfast is only a Catholic city on the council area. one of the stories of the 2011 census could be the large growth in the Catholic population in Glengormley, SE Belfast and Carryduff. In the 2001 census there was already a noticeable Catholic majority among the children.


Colm said...

Ivan said...
How are you factoring in the 17,000 odd Alliance votes?

Alliance got over 20,000 votes in Belfast (15% of those cast) which would obviously need to be considered before coming to an accurate conclusion on whether Belfast has become Nationalist.

I omitted Alliance votes from my calculation on Unionist -vs- Nationalist for a number of reasons:
- Alliance are neutral on the Union
- The Alliance voter profile has developed in complexity since their early 'light unionist' days
- The election results give no indication of preferences beyond first
- The assumption that Unionists vote for Unionist parties and Nationalists vote for Nationalist parties is the best indicator available

Caveats on the real Unionist/Nationalist proportions will continue to exist until a definitive answer becomes available in a border poll.

For example, it could be assumed that most of Naomi Long's 12,839 votes came from the Protestant community and would therefore vote for the Union. However, 7.5% of the people in East Belfast are Catholic. If they voted in a similar proportion to Protestants, over 2,500 Catholics voted in East Belfast. Just over 1,000 votes were cast on Nationalist parties. So most of the other 1,500 probably went to Alliance. While this doesn't represent a huge part of Long's personal vote, it does indicate that Catholics in East Belfast were more likely to vote for Alliance than Nationalists.

Following her victory, Naomi Long mentioned the votes she received from the Short Strand in particular as an indication of how she gets support from all sections of the community.

The situation with Alliance voters in South Belfast is just as complex. The campaign of racist attacks on Chinese minorities in Unionist areas of South Belfast could indicate that the Alliance candidate, Anna Lo would find a more friendly welcome on the doorsteps in Nationalist areas.

There was only one Nationalist candidate in South Belfast who is disliked by many Republicans. This could also have provided votes for Alliance.

Another caveat is that of turnout by constituency. It has historically been the case that Nationalist constituencies have higher turnouts than Unionist. This was not the case in Belfast. West Belfast had the lowest turnout in the city, while East Belfast had the highest.

I have given these as qualitative examples backing up my original statement that Belfast appears to be greening. There are many more factors that could be considered before the statement should be taken as one of fact.

Anonymous said...


Adams machine didn't get the vote out in Lagmore and Black's road. Another advantage that the Unionists have is that their electorate is a lot older. Older people tend to be better voters.

I think it's fair to say that Catholics are likely to be a majority of the population in the WM Belfast boundaries while not haveing a large majority in the votes.

Anonymous said...

Sammy Mc Nally said,

Colm, something I have been annoying Horseman about for some time is the fact that there is no attempt to work out the relative turnouts by community background. The last Westminsters saw a bit of a change from the norm with seemingly much greater falls in the Nationalist turnout rates than the Unioinst rates - and with East Belfast actually having a higher turnout rate than West Belfast. I appreciate that there would need to be quite a bit of extrapolation but I find it puzling that no one with a bit of statistical knowledge (unlike myself), plenty of interest and dare I say it a suitable coat for keeping out the rain (anorak) doesn't have at least a stab at it?