The last two sets of elections have resulted in an entirely unforeseen but nevertheless marked decline in the Nationalist vote (from approaching 42% to around 38% in each case, like-for-like or otherwise).
Resulting commentary has yet again seen that usual scourge – people amending the evidence to suit their case, not amending their case to suit the evidence.
Let us first of all accept, straight off, that the vast bulk of votes for Nationalist parties comes from people of Catholic background. There are then two obvious issues about how people of Catholic background have changed which, I would suggest, are the cause of the decline.
First of all, both main Nationalist parties have essentially adopted a hard-left policy of a mammoth welfare state and almost, in fact, of suggesting that work should be a life choice. For most people of Catholic background (note, most), I would suggest this position is seen as outrageous. They did not come through civil rights, fair employment and a grubby conflict for a life on the dole. They came through it as an aspirational class, who demand that the next generation will be treated better and will do better than the previous one. Neither Nationalist party is remotely in tune with that aspirational class, which is why they increasingly stay at home or switch to Alliance (or another sort of protest).
Secondly, only a very slim majority of people of Catholic background regard themselves as “Irish”. At the 2011 census, fully 45% did not tick “Irish” as their identity, even though multiple ticks were allowed. I would suggest that most people who did tick “Irish” and feel strongly about their Irish (and Nationalist) identity already have a party to vote for – Sinn Fein. This makes it all the more mystifying that almost anything the SDLP seems to do is to mimic Sinn Fein, including to add an “all-island” dimension to almost anything that moves (watch the motions and amendments they put down for evidence). This is also why Fianna Fail is not remotely the solution – it offers an appeal to an Irish, Nationalist and all-island identity which is already taken care of in Northern Ireland.
(It is, by the way, by no means clear that people of Catholic background overwhelmingly favour the socially liberal stances adopted by Sinn Fein. However, again, the SDLP has broadly copied those, and Fianna Fail has adopted them too. This again leaves no meaningful difference.)
Instead I would suggest – and it is only a suggestion – that the aspirational, not-particularly-bothered-about-identity class of people of Catholic background have no objection to parties taking nominal positions in favour of a “United Ireland”; but they absolutely don’t want mass “welfarism”, are uninterested in the phrase “all-island” appearing in every other sentence, and are turned off by grandstanding with no purpose. What they do want are people prepared to govern, prepared to demonstrate basic competence in managing public finances, and prepared to recognise economic reality. It’s hardly revolutionary – but no Nationalist Party is offering it.