An Annex to ‘Voter Turnout Trends around the World’, a study published in 2016 by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, tabulates the turnouts in the most recent parliamentary elections for 196 countries. The top 50 includes 14 democracies where voting is compulsory. These include Australia, 7th with a 93% voter turnout, and Belgium, 18th with 89%. There are also six South American countries where voting is compulsory, not all in the top 50. Three Scandinavian countries that do not have compulsory voting appear in the top 100, Denmark and Sweden, in 25th and 26th place respectively, both with 86%, and Norway in 47th place with 78%. Ireland is in 92nd place with 70% and the United Kingdom languishes in 107th place with 66%. This is still considerably higher than the United States of America which, in 185th place with a 43% voter turnout, is rubbing shoulders with some of Donald Trump’s “s***hole countries”.
It is also a figure well below the 50% that has been described as potentially “extremely destabilising”.
Since 1998, turnout has been declining in almost all UK elections. In the last four General Elections, Northern Ireland has had the lowest turnout of England, Scotland, and Wales, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by the media. Back in 2010, Alex Kane observed that “the largest single bloc in the pro-Union community is the non-voting bloc. And it is growing at each election. Maybe these people don’t have the same dread of a united Ireland; or don’t believe it will come anytime soon; or just don’t trust the present unionist machines to represent their interests”. https://sluggerotoole.com/2010/05/25/hearts-and-minds-largest-single-bloc-in-the-pro-union-community-is-non-voting/ More recently, during a BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight programme in Jun 2021, Professor Peter Shirlow reportedly claimed that “three-quarters of people who don’t vote in Northern Ireland are pro-Union”.
Of the Northern Irish respondents in a University of Liverpool survey who did not vote in the 2019 General election and who stated a constitutional preference (31.1%), 76.9% chose “to remain part of the UK”. Presumably this is where the ‘three quarters’ figure originated but three-quarters of all who did not vote and three-quarters of 31.1% who did not vote are clearly not the same thing. The general assumption that there is a large body of non-voting unionists needs more investigation.
A tendency has been observed for Northern Ireland’s non-voters to represent younger age-groups, to have a higher proportion of females than males, and to be in the top or bottom social groups. They are employed more in the private sector than the public sector and tend to be more urban than rural. They are mostly non-religious, not identifying as either Protestant or Catholic. Following a Belfast Telegraph-LucidTalk East Belfast constituency poll conducted in 2015, the paper divided the non-voting cluster into four subgroups: ‘Doers’, ‘Unplugged’, ‘Irritables’, and ‘Alienateds’.
The ‘Doers’ are relatively affluent, educated, and optimistic about their personal future. They are informed about world current affairs but disengaged from local politics and disenchanted with local politicians, believing they can personally do more to shape their lives and those of their families.
The ‘Unplugged’ also take little or no interest in politics or politicians but tend to be more pessimistic in their outlook than the ‘Doers’. They are unlikely ever to be enthused about seemingly mundane local government issues. They also tend to be young and female.
The ‘Irritables’ are, as their name would suggest, keenly aware of the politisphere but deeply dissatisfied with it. They tend to be from an older demographic with firm but diffuse opinions on how things ought to be done. However, they share a lack of confidence in the ability of politicians to achieve anything positive. This group could be caricatured as the Victor Meldrew cluster. ‘Irritables’ are not completely unknown to the ranks of Slugger commentators!
The ‘Alienateds’ are, in effect, militant ‘Irritables’ but lack that clusters interest in political reportage, preferring instead the direct action of rallies, marches and even riots. They tend to be young and male.
As they have always constituted such a high proportion of the eligible population, non-voters hold a particular fascination for those keen to elicit their endorsement. While compulsory voting might seem attractive and appears to work for many democracies, it comes with human rights concerns perhaps leaving targeted persuasion as the only viable option for Northern Ireland. The ‘Alienateds’ appear recently to have been in the sights of the various Unionist parties. The Unionist Forum, for example, was created as a response to the Union flag protests. The short-lived NI21, established by Basil McCrea et.al in 2013, might possibly have picked up some soft Unionists from among the ‘Doers’ but we can only speculate. Perhaps this cluster would now be susceptible to overtures from a constitutionally neutral and progressive Alliance Party.
In any event, as Kane, ironically a self-identified non-voting ‘Irritable’, concludes,
“whatever their reasons for not voting, someone needs to find out and then find a way of engaging them and encouraging them towards a polling station”.
David Bell is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Archaeology and Palaeoecology at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is also a member of the Alliance Party and Humanists UK but is writing in an entirely personal capacity.