Partition was not kind to the Nationalist political parties either who obtained the vast majority of its support from the Catholic minority community. Majority Unionist rule led to gerrymandering and denial of the right to one man one vote.
As demographics changed and the Catholic population grew so too did the Nationalist vote. Nationalists which once made up a mere 18.9% of the vote, had by the time the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 almost reached parity with Unionists.
From around the year 1998 until 2011 the Nationalist voted seemed to plateau at around 42%. The results of the 2014 local and European elections came as a shock. The combined Sinn Féin and SDLP vote slipped back to 38.5%. The result of the 2015 Westminster election shows this was no once off. The SF/SDLP vote of 38.4% is almost identical to the prior year. So what has happened to Nationalism? Why despite demographic change has the Nationalist vote stalled and gone into decline? Could it be electoral apathy?
The graph below is an estimate of electoral turnout based on election figures and community background figures from the census. It assumes that he vast majority of those brought up in a Catholic community background vote for or are inclined to vote for Nationalist parties and the vast majority of those brought up in a Protestant community background vote for or are inclined to vote for Unionist parties. It also assumes that everybody is on the electoral register.
The 2014 European and local elections saw a surge in Unionist turnout. The Nationalist vote continued it's decline and remained well below the Unionist turnout in the 2015 election.
Nationalist voter apathy was catching up with traditional Unionist voter apathy up until 2009 when parity was reached. Although the proportion of Nationalists voting declined at a greater rate than Unionists, the Nationalist percentage of the vote was holding. This was a sign of further demographic change.
There were two significant events which took place between the 2011 and 2014 elections which could have caused the Unionist turnout to increase well beyond that of Nationalists.
On 4th December 2012, Belfast City Council with it's first ever Nationalist plurality voted to change the policy of flying the Union Flag from City Hall. Instead of the flying of the flag 365 days per year it would only be flown on 17 designated days. The Union Jack which had flown over Belfast City Hall every day for more than a century was taken down.
There was an electoral canvass in 2013. Basically the Electoral Office NI wiped clean the electoral register, an electoral canvass took place in each constituency and a new electoral register was published. The new register contained details of 1,241,079 electors out of an eligible electorate of 1,405,808 based on the 2011 census. The new register contained 88.3% of the eligible population. Could it be that the new register contained a much higher proportion of additional potential Unionist voters than Nationalist voters? The Loyalist reaction to the removal of the Union Jack from Belfast City Hall was bedlam on the streets. Could the overall Unionist reaction have been getting the maximum amount of additional potential voters onto the electoral register?
Clearly Unionists have become more motivated to turnout and vote. But that is only one side of the equation and not something Nationalist can change. What can be changed is the huge increase in apathy among their own base.
In order to resolve this major problem the reasons for increasing apathy must be identified. Then solutions must be formulated.
Possible reasons for Nationalist voter apathy:
- Despondency. Not much progress has been made since the GFA. The British Government and Unionists have failed to implement outstanding issues of past agreements such as the Irish Language Act. No progress has been made on the A5, the Ulster Canal, Narrow Bridge or an independent University for Derry. Little or no jobs have been created outside of Belfast. No fiscal powers have been secured. Amazingly, both SF and the SDLP have entered into subsequent agreements without first obtaining guarantees on implementing past agreements.
- The collapse of the Irish economy is likely to have had an effect. Note the large drop in Nationalist turnout between 2007 and 2009. The annual Peace Monitoring Report suggests support for Unity dropped at the height of the recession.
- Lack of choice. Unionists have the DUP, UUP, TUV, UKIP, PUP, Conservatives etc. Nationalists have two left wing parties with very little separating them bar their view on the past.
- Lack of Nationalist co-operation. The Unionist pact worked to perfection. In PR elections Unionists will encourage voters to give a preference to all other Unionists on the ballot paper. Past experience suggests SF and SDLP will not do the same.
- Many practicing Catholics are not enamoured by SF and SDLP views on abortion and same sex marriage.
- The SDLP are a party lacking individuals with charisma and leadership. They are turning non SF inclined voters off who are either staying at home or voting for Alliance and People Before Profit.
- A Nationalist Panel should be set up with representatives from all interested parties to research the reasons for increasing apathy and report back on it's findings with remedies.
- Granting Irish citizens in the North voting rights in Presidential Elections would energise Nationalists and encourage more political organisation on an All Ireland basis. This should be a key strategic objective.
- More choice is required. The North is crying out for a centre right All Ireland party. Fianna Faíl who have promised to contest the 2019 assembly elections may offer the best opportunity.
- Reduce the legal voting age to 16.
- Learn from the Scottish National Party success in Scotland and replicate where practical.
- Campaign to get the maximum number of people registered to vote.
- More focus on getting those living/travelling abroad and those in 3rd level education to use their postal or proxy vote.
- Both SF and the SDLP need to put aside their narrow political interests and co-operate for the greater good.