Elections, near and far – Nicholas Whyte speaking ahead of his talk on 25 March #imaginebelfast

The Imagine! Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics runs from the 21–27 March, and as part of a series of Democracy Day events on Friday 25 March, election psephologist Nicholas Whyte is talking about Where do we go from here? The 2022 Assembly election and a potential unity vote.

Two things are going through Nicholas’ head in the run-up to polling day on 5 May.

Firstly, how are the big vote shifts that we saw in the three elections we had in 2019 going to be borne out in reality?

“It tends to be that voters are a little bit more conservative than we like to anticipate. I suspect that the amount of change will be a bit less than is being seen as possible in some quarters.

“At the same time, elections are about change. And the result of the last Assembly election was actually pretty close – the DUP only one seat ahead of Sinn Féin, and nationalist and unionist parties pretty much level pegging.

“So I think there is the potential for a historic shift where nationalism does outpoll unionism, either in seats or in votes or possibly in both, or possibly in neither, depending on exactly how the dice roll [and] how the votes fall.”

Up until now, Nicholas sees that elections have had an anticipated relative or absolute majority of unionism.

“So things have changed, and things are changing. The question is how fast? And the question is, are we reaching a new equilibrium? Basically we had a situation for the first 20 years of the century where voting patterns remained pretty stable. Or are we heading for disequilibrium, for a dynamic situation where change is accelerating and developing with each election? Which to an extent is what we saw around the turn of the century between 1996 and 2001 … we really won’t know until we get the actual numbers out of the ballot boxes on the day after the election when the count takes place.”

Secondly, Nicholas is looking at the question of having a referendum.

He was closely involved with the independence processes in Montenegro and South Sudan, the last two countries that became independent through referendum. And also in Kosovo, though they didn’t do the referendum there.

“It’s actually quite rare to have a vote on whether your particular bit of territory should be ruled by one country or by a different country. Most such votes include independence as one of the options. I’ve found 21 precedents [around the world] of votes where you’re not choosing independence for your own patch but [instead] which other country you want to be part of.

“The most recent one is actually the border poll of 1973 in Northern Ireland! There has not been a similar vote since then.

“There were only three others since the Second World War, two in India in the process of independence, and one in Western Africa. There were a bunch more after the First World War and a few in the 19th century. It’s actually quite a rare phenomenon as opposed to the straightforward independence or bust type referendum.

“Sometimes you get the other way round, you do get countries that actually surrender their independence through a referendum process. Newfoundland is the most recent case of that, they joined the rest of Canada rather than be separate in late 1940s.”

So on the 25 March, Nicholas will raise people’s sights beyond the border as it currently sits, and look at other borders that have existed, that have changed, and think about what can be learned from outside.

As a psephologist with an eye on the full and final vote, what does Nicholas make of the opinion polls that will be published between now and polling day?

“The problem with opinion polls is that they’re quite good stories for the day that they come out. And then after the election, when you’ve got real votes to look at, they sort of disappear.”

People surveyed in Northern Ireland aren’t always that forward or totally fulsome about stating their voting intentions.

“I think that we should apply a 2% margin of error to anything we seen in opinion polls and I think that kind of wipes out most of the story when you’re comparing one opinion poll with the previous one, because the movements tend to be relatively small and within that margin of error.

“At the same time, the general broad thrust is quite clear that according to the polls Sinn Fein is ahead of the DUP who are only marginally ahead of the other parties if at all. The other parties being all Ulster Unionists, TUV and Alliance.

“It will be an interesting test of the opinion polls to see whether they have managed to capture this moment or whether they’ve sort of got misled by methodology issues. And there’s simply no way of knowing that and I feel sympathetic to the pollsters who are attempting to navigate in the dark using a map, which they know has changed since the last time they were navigating in the dark and they don’t know in what way.”

The event is being held online in the Ulster University Belfast campus at 5pm on 25 March. You can register to attend for free on the festival website. And you’ll only be round the corner from have time to scoot into town to take part in the politics pub quiz in the Sunflower Bar which starts at 8pm. Plenty of time to get a few non-quiz rounds after Nicholas’ talk!

And on the festival website you’ll find all the other talks, walks, lectures, workshops, films, theatre performances and much more that’ll be happening between 21 and 27 March.

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