After the 1997 Westminster election, unionists held 13/18 Westminster MPs, 61/110 1996 Forum seats, and were about 10% ahead of nationalist bloc votes. Now they have 8/18 Westminster seats, 37/90 Assembly seats and were about 0.5% ahead of the nationalist bloc vote in the 2022 Assembly election. Unionism has become a minority in all election types and looks close to losing its vote-plurality status.
There are always variations of turnout and tactical voting depending on the type and significance of election. To see beyond this, we can average the numbers over, say, a 5-election cycle with the date being the average of the 5 election dates. (Details on the smoothing process can be found here.)
There is one significant trend happening in this graph: since 2016 unionism has declined and middle-ground parties, principally Alliance, has increased. Nationalism has stood still, failing to capitalise on RHI and Brexit.
If we look at the data in another way, nationalism is winning handsomely. Despite its vote share stagnating, the mass exodus of liberal unionists to Alliance has reduced the unionist bloc share so that it is now just about bigger than the nationalist bloc share (based on an analysis of votes transferred to and from non-party candidates in 2022).
If the nationalist bloc vote surpasses the unionist bloc vote, the calls for a border poll will rise to a new crescendo.
More good news for nationalism: differential turnout (see my article on Slugger here) continues to decline. Traditionally, differential turnout was a significant factor in bloc percentages, tending to help nationalists due to higher turnout in nationalist constituencies. In 2007, Mid-Ulster turnout was 19.3% greater than for North Down; in 2022 that gap had halved to 9.3%. RHI, Brexit, the ruthless toppling of Arlene Foster and the DUP’s withdrawal from the Executive have energised east-of-the-Bann non-republicans to vote, and to vote Alliance.
Pro-Brexit/anti-Agreement unionism is now facing two energised constituencies: nationalism and anti-Brexit/pro-Agreement non-nationalists. The DUP’s relative victory over the TUV looks more and more like a pyrrhic one. The more they hitch their wagon to Boris’s Brexit Bus and avoid engaging with Stormont and the Executive, the more the unionist bloc share will decline and the greater the share of seats will go to pro-Protocol parties.
Many of these graphs shows how pivotal 2016-17 has been in NI politics. In 2015 the Robinson-led DUP had brought stability to NI and success to the DUP. Within two years, Brexit, RHI and feeding crocodiles had shredded that achievement.
Nationalists have more Westminster seats than unionists, and SF have won the right to be First Minster. There is one more prize for NI nationalism to claim: to win more votes than the unionist bloc. The final graph shows that a nationalist bloc plurality appears more likely than a unionist plurality in the next Assembly election. Even a merger of unionist parties is extremely unlikely to stop this. Indeed, it could hasten this possibility as more liberal UUP voters move towards Alliance. It is possible that the DUP’s Brexit-backing has achieved the distinction of causing the largest ever 6-year drop in unionism by both converting some unionists to non-unionists and irrevocably splintering the remaining unionist voters for the sake of anti-EU English politicians who discard them like yesterday’s newspapers when it suits. If Michelle O’Neill can pull off the trick of appearing to govern for all, if and when she becomes First Minister, that will likely reduce the ability of the DUP to scare its base into turning out to prevent a SF FM. If the DUP won’t accept the DFM job under a nationalist FM, their poorer voters are likely to desert them as the Executive fails to deal with the health and cost of living crises. Jeffrey Donaldson is well and truly caught between a rock and a hard place.
Philip McGuinness teaches at Dundalk Institute of Technology, and loves to walk around and over the wee perfect hills of the Ring Of Gullion.