The cry goes up every four years: “So, what can we learn from the American elections?”
The answer, as usual, is really not very much. We are often fooled into thinking the United States is a more similar country to us that it actually is because we speak (roughly) the same language. It is in fact just as foreign as France or Germany, even if it seems more accessible at times.
However, one thing we can learn is good polling and sensible use of it.
Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies may usefully be split two ways, and then subdivided a further two ways:
In grey, we have the “Greater Belfast” constituencies. Collectively, these were not formally planted but were informally planted (predominantly by Scots) and subsequently industrialized. They may usefully be split into the predominantly urban electorates (the “Belfast City” constituencies) and predominantly suburban electorates (the “Belfast Suburbs” constituencies).
In purple, we have the “Rural & Border” constituencies. To the south (lighter shade), we have the “Border” constituencies which, with the exception of South Down, were formally planted predominantly by English settlers – with the exception of Upper Bann, they have Catholic majorities and with the exception of South Down they have an Anglican majority among Protestants. To the north (darker shade), we have the “Ullans” constituencies which were planted in various ways ultimately predominantly by Scots (all have more Presbyterians than Anglicans).
I state the religious make-up primarily for religious reasons. There is also a linguistic divide – the “Greater Belfast” constituencies typically display a “Belfast accent”; the “Border” constituencies typically have “Mid-Ulster English”; the “Ullans” constituencies typically have “Ulster Scots”. The boundaries are not perfect, but fairly close.
Within Nationalism, this makes little difference, the swing to Sinn Fein from SDLP has been fairly consistent from 1998 to 2011 Assembly Elections (Sinn Fein figure on left):
|SF||SDLP||Belfast City||Belfast Suburbs||Border (Rural)||Ullans (Rural)|
With Unionism, however, the distinction is stark. The Ulster Unionists have always been stronger in the suburbs and the Border area – in other words, in areas of higher English settlement.
The trends are different too. In 2011, there was a clear swing to the Ulster Unionists from the DUP in the Border area in 2011; yet in urban and suburban Belfast and in rural areas of higher Scottish settlement the Ulster Unionist decline continued (albeit in the latter case partly self-inflicted by the McClarty debacle and the absence of any candidate at all in Foyle). Below, the Ulster Unionist share appears on the left in comparison to the DUP on the right:
|UU||DUP||Belfast City||Belfast Suburbs||Border (Rural)||Ullans (Rural)|
The Alliance vote is well known to be geographically limited to the Greater Belfast constituencies – where in fact it is the second largest party in local government and third largest in the Assembly.
However, interestingly, the trend in this case is only markedly different in the four Belfast constituencies – right across Northern Ireland, since 2003 the party has enjoyed steady growth (but lower outside Belfast than in the Belfast constituencies themselves):
|Alliance||Belfast City||Belfast Suburbs||Border (Rural)||Ullans (Rural)|
What does this tell us about likely future outcomes? The key, as ever, is the trend.
2014: The European Election is pan-Northern Ireland, and that is important. The above tables would hint that the Alliance vote share may come close to or even level with the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists; in practice, this is unlikely, as turn-out is significantly higher in rural areas (which favours the latter two). The only potential change we could deem ‘likely’ (or at least ‘highly conceivable’) would be two DUP seats (the second at the expense of the Ulster Unionists), but I doubt this will even be attempted. Remember, in more than a quarter of NI – and a quarter with high turnout – the DUP is barely ahead of the Ulster Unionists at all; for two seats, it has to win by more than 2:1 (in fact probably more like 5:2).
2015: The Westminster Election is much more interesting. The only Unionist seat in the “Border” area is Upper Bann, where the Ulster Unionists are indeed closing on the DUP. The trend indicates it will be close. Similarly, the Alliance vote is picking up fastest in the “Belfast City” constituencies – which bodes well not only for a defence of Belfast East, but even conceivably a challenge at Belfast South.
2016: The likely date of the next Assembly Election sees the trends given another year’s movement. By then, the Alliance vote may surpass even Sinn Fein’s in the “Greater Belfast” constituencies, threatening close to wipe-out for the Ulster Unionists and SDLP in many of them. However, the Ulster Unionists may even have moved ahead of the DUP in the “Border” constituencies by this stage, making life interesting particularly in Upper Bann and Fermanagh/South Tyrone. In this case, unlike in 2014, the Alliance Party has a “turnout advantage”, with fewer votes needed to win seats in “Greater Belfast” than in the “Rural & Border” ones, and thus the potential to draw closer to the Ulster Unionists and SDLP in terms of seats won even without speeding up the swing in terms of the popular vote.
Of course, this all needs much broader analysis. However, what is clear is that different parts of Northern Ireland, with their different histories, respond differently to political events and partisan swings.
Events may, of course, change everything. However, the current trends indicate the Ulster Unionists will become increasingly defined to the border area, but may in fact increase their vote in that area to the extent that the European seat is certainly not lost and a parliamentary seat even comes back into view. On trends alone, I would worry more about the SDLP – I am not sure a coalition of Foyle, South Down and South Belfast is viable in the longer term (not least when boundary changes wipe at least one of them out, as they surely will eventially).
All of this is conjecture. However, what we can definitely learn from American elections is how to watch the trends. Northern Ireland’s political trends are under-researched – in fact, they vary significantly in different areas, and can even be predicted from patterns of historical settlement. So can America’s, of course…