Some time ago, I wrote this post noting that in Northern Ireland, as in the United States, political preference often matches historical settlement patterns.
So it continued last month.
In the four new Greater Belfast Council areas (Belfast City, Antrim-Newtownabbey, Lisburn-Castlereagh and North Down-Ards), the top four parties in terms of seats (with first preference vote in brackets) were:
- DUP 65 (28.4%)
- Ulster Unionist 36 (14.3%)
- Alliance 26 (12.2%)
- Sinn Fein 22 (16.4%)
As it happens this was a particularly good result, trend-wise at least, for the Ulster Unionists, who reclaimed their position as the second party of local government in Greater Belfast. However, I ignore Greater Belfast for the purposes of comparison with historical settlement, as it is naturally the centre of Northern Ireland’s administration and commerce and is thus an area people move into and out of with comparatively greater frequency than more rural areas.
In the rest of County Antrim and the North Coast (Mid-East Antrim, Causeway Coast-Glens and Derry-Strabane – i.e. the historical Glens, Route, Coleraine, Derry City and north-west Tyrone), the results were:
- DUP 35 (24.3%)
- Sinn Fein 26 (21.5%)
- Ulster Unionist 21 (14.0%)
- SDLP 17 (14.8%)
In this case, the DUP essentially maintained its dominance – it doesn’t quite match the Greater Belfast ratio of outpolling and out-scoring the Ulster Unionists by 2:1, but it is close to it. (For reference, the Sinn Fein-SDLP ratio is 2:1 in Greater Belfast but is reduced to 3:2 here).
However, in what I call the Border-Rural area (Fermanagh-Omagh, Mid Ulster, Armagh-Banbridge-Craigavon and Newry-Mourne-Down – i.e. Counties Tyrone, Fermanagh, Armagh and Down outside the Greater Belfast and Greater Derry area, plus that part of County Londonderry not originally in County Coleraine), the results were markedly different:
- Sinn Fein 57 (34.4%)
- Ulster Unionist 31 (19.5%)
- DUP 30 (16.3%)
- SDLP 24 (18.4%)
Here, the Ulster Unionists are (and always were) ahead of the DUP in local government, and are actually closing on them at Assembly level too. This is increasingly the case the further west you go – in County Fermanagh, the Ulster Unionists outpolled the DUP by almost 2:1.
It remains clear, therefore, that the Ulster Unionist vote is strongest – and is rising fastest (or declining most slowly) – in areas of predominantly English settlement during the 17th century. This would, naturally, be reinforced by a denominational split – it appears clear from these figures that Anglicans are proportionately considerably likelier to vote Ulster Unionist than Presbyterians.
It would appear also, in fact, that the same may apply to the Sinn Fein-SDLP split, which is divided West/East, i.e. between areas which were Normanized (where the SDLP polls much more strongly) and areas which remained Gaelic (where Sinn Fein scores better). This split has long been known to exist between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail (people with Norman surnames, most obviously FitzGerald, are more inclined towards the former than the latter). The SDLP was significantly more competitive, for example, in the Route part of County Antrim (controlled into the Middle Ages by the Norman McQuillans) than in the western part of Causeway Coast-Glens (which remained mainly under the Gaelic O’Kanes). Sinn Fein outpolled the SDLP typically by around 3:1 in former (Gaelic) O’Neill and Maguire territory. In this case, however, I would be less certain it has to do with historical settlement – it may simply be a matter of the SDLP polling more strongly in more urban areas (e.g. in the town of Ballymena rather than in the rural Roe Valley area).
This may all just be a geographical quirk of course. But I doubt it!