Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Why old sectarian headcounts don’t add up at polls anymore

Are Protestants who don’t vote unionist, unionists?

In a BBC discussion following the Westminster election, Tom Elliott of the Ulster Unionists and Nigel Dodds of the DUP agreed that the disappointing performance of a number of unionist candidates could be attributed mainly to the failure of unionist voters to turn out.

But on what basis is it assumed that voters who opt not to vote unionist are unionist voters nonetheless? Are all who have ever voted unionist deemed to have indicated not just a preference in that poll but a lifetime’s allegiance?

Or is it just that ‘unionist’ is being used as code for some firm-set, but objectively irrelevant aspect of existence, such as having been born into a Protestant family?

Similarly for activists for a nationalist party who might angrily accuse a non-nationalist candidate of ‘stealing our votes’. If a vote hasn’t been cast for a nationalist, whence the furious certainty that the voter, even so, is a nationalist?

Wouldn’t it make at least as much sense to infer from the figures that a growing proportion of people no longer identify themselves in politics as unionist or nationalist? This wouldn’t necessarily mean that they have ceased to identify with the community they come from, just that this aspect of their living doesn’t entirely determine their politics.

You can be a proud Shankill man or Bogside woman while recognising that there is more to you than the particular consciousness conventionally attributed to the place.

Of course, Tom Elliott and Nigel Dodds have a point, too. Voters committed to communal politics might stay home on polling day to show displeasure at the choice of candidate on offer to them. To an extent, Fermanagh-South Tyrone bore this out.

But it could be, too, that a significant number of no-show ‘unionists’ had either ceased to think of themselves as unionists or, more likely, just aren’t that much bothered anymore. Not bothered enough to journey to the polling station anyway.

Support for this interpretation of voting patterns comes in the most comprehensive survey available of Northern attitudes towards the Union and the idea of a united Ireland.

In 2007, the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey asked people across the six counties whether they thought of themselves as unionist, nationalist or neither. Thirty-six per cent said unionist, 24% said nationalist, 40% said neither.

The data suggested that the younger the age group, the greater the freedom from the Orange-Green matrix. Younger Protestants seemed the least likely category to define themselves along traditional lines.

Only 25% of 18-24-year-olds overall described themselves as unionist, against 49% for over-65s. The percentage identifying themselves as nationalist held fairly steady: 27% of 18-24-year-olds, 25% of over-65s. Forty-eight per cent in the youngest group |rejected both identifications, compared to 26% in the oldest.

The figures could be deceptive. Sizeable numbers might be fibbing, presenting themselves as liberated from the straitjacket of ancient identities, but holding the old notions in their hearts.

Even so, the extent to which the statistics contradict stock assumptions is striking. If almost half of 18-to-24-year-olds say they are neither unionist nor nationalist, then, even discounting for diplomatic pretence, the political profile of the North is significantly different from what’s conventionally assumed.

Asked for their preferred constitutional arrangement, 11% favour direct rule, 55% want devolution within the UK, 23% declare themselves united Irelanders.

Twelve per cent said that they would find it “almost impossible to accept” a united Ireland even if a majority in the North voted for it; 46% said they wouldn’t like it, but could live with it; 39% would happily endorse the verdict.

If there was never to be a vote for a united Ireland and partition were thereby made permanent, 4% would find the arrangement “almost impossible to accept”; |34% would be disappointed but could live with it; 58% would |happily accept the majority view.

While most Northerners aspire either to retain the link with Britain, or to move towards a united Ireland, these are, increasingly, low-intensity aspirations.

It is useful to keep this in mind when mainstream politicians assure us that there’s nothing they’d like better than to move away from Orange versus Green and onto an economic agenda. What’s stopping them?

The numbers of the politically homeless increase daily. Who will build a structure that offers them congenial accommodation?

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