As part of the peace process Northern Ireland’s devolved government (the Assembly) was established in 1998. Since then five larger parties and a number of smaller parties have had members elected to the Assembly. Elections have been held in 1998, 2003, 2008, 2011 and 2016. Politics in Northern Ireland is based mainly on community identity. With only a few exceptions, people from a Protestant community background vote for Unionist parties, people from a Catholic community background vote for Nationalist parties. The Assembly requires cross community support in order to function so parties must declare which community they represent, i.e. they must declare themselves as Unionist, Nationalist or Other. Two of the larger parties designate themselves as Unionist, two as Nationalist and the remaining party designates as Other. Unionists wish to maintain Northern Ireland as part of the UK while Nationalists wish to see Northern Ireland leave the UK and unite with the Irish Republic. Others focus on non-constitutional issues such as the economy, education etc. and take a neutral stance on the constitutional question.
Has the gap between Unionists and Nationalists narrowed?
Demographic changes are significant in Northern Ireland since nationalist are predominantly Catholic and Unionists are predominantly Protestant. Although the two communities live side by side they live separately, each in its own area, cross community marriages are rare. Demographics should favour the Nationalist community. For at least two important reasons – a higher birth rate amongst the Catholic community and a higher emigration rate amongst educated Protestants (Protestant students are more likely to go to university in mainland UK and are more likely to remain there after graduation). The effect of these two trends is to result in the remaining Protestant population becoming older, fewer in number and less well educated than the Catholic community. The graph below shows the gap between the number of Unionist MLAs and Nationalist MLAs (MLA = member of local assembly). However there is no sign so far in the Assembly of this weakening in the Unionist block.
The above graph shows that while the gap between unionism and nationalism has fluctuated there is no obvious narrowing of the gap. In 1998 Unionists got 51% of the votes while Nationalists got 41% and the remaining 8% went to Other. By 2016 Unionists had 50%, Nationalists had 40% and Other got 10%. Overall the turnout at Assembly elections has fallen, but it has fallen equally for both Unionists and Nationalists, while Other has increased slightly, suggesting perhaps that people in both communities are becoming disillusioned with the main Unionist and Nationalists parties and many of them have stopped voting while a few have turned to Other parties.
The graph below shows the decline in voter turnout at each of the four elections after 1998.
Performance of the larger parties
The DUP has had 3 leaders since 1998. They have replaced the UUP as the main Unionist party but have failed to eliminate the UUP.
Sinn Fein has had just one leader since 1998. They have replaced the SDLP as the main Nationalist party and for a while it looked like Sinn Fein would make the SDLP irrelevant but so far they have failed to achieve that and at the 2016 election Sinn Fein lost one of their seats.
SDLP has had five leaders since 1998. Although they won more votes in 1998 than any other party they have in some respects become the weakest of the larger parties – their vote and the number of seats won has dropped at every election since 1998. The large number of leader changes perhaps indicates a party that is struggling.
UUP has had four leaders since 1998. Like the SDLP, the UUP seemed to be in terminal decline but their current leader seems to have slowed or stopped this decline. To successfully challenge the DUP for the top Unionist party they need to convince Unionist voters that the Union would be safer with them.
The Alliance party has had two leaders since 1998. Initially it looked like they were becoming irrelevant in Northern Ireland politics – they lost more than 50% of their vote between 1998 and 2003. But they were able to hold onto their six seats and since then they have been rebuilding their vote.
The DUP and Alliance parties are the only two parties to either maintain or increase the number of seats they hold at each and every election.
The smaller parties tend to come and go. The following parties all succeeded in getting MLAs elected in 1998:
UK Unionist Party – they were opposed to any form of devolved government in N.Ireland or the government of the Irish Republic having any say the running of N.Ireland. The party no longer exists.
Progressive Unionist Party – still exists but has failed to get any MLAs elected in the last two Assembly elections. They are the only left wing Unionist party but they also have links to a Loyalist paramilitary organisation so will always struggle to gain support outside a few small Loyalist areas.
Northern Ireland Women’s Coallition – had some minor success in the 1998 election but then faded away. The party no longer exists.
In the last three elections the following three parties have all had some success:
Green party – a left wing party that emphasises environmental issues in addition to economic etc issues.
TUV – to some extent they represent the view of the failed UK Unionist Party
People Before Profit – the first alternative to Sinn Fein and SDLP for Nationalist voters
23% of the Unionist block is female
31% of the Nationalist block is female
40% of the Other block is female
Although the Dup is led by a woman the Unionist block as a whole seriously under represents female Unionists. The DUP has the lowest number of female MLAs of all the parties.
Demographic changes have yet to be seen in Assembly elections.
Support for the Assembly amongst the electorate is in danger of dropping below 50%.
Northern Ireland’s Assembly electoral system perpetuates and entrenches the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland.
The Green party is the only party to have at least 50% female representation.