A closer examination of the first preference votes cast in last week’s special Northern Assembly election confirms what common sense suggests, that Nationalists were more strongly motivated to register their feelings at the ballot box than Unionists.
The question to be answered is why.
Only nine months separate the last two elections to the Assembly yet the difference between the rise in Nationalist and Unionist turnouts is so significant – the Nationalist increase in first preference votes cast since the May 2016 election was twice that of Unionists – that only one conclusion is possible: something really motivated Nationalist voters to come out in such large numbers.
First the figures. All four major parties, the DUP, the Ulster Unionists, Sinn Fein and the SDLP saw their total of first preference votes increase over the 2016 result. The DUP’s share rose by 11.27 per cent, the Ulster Unionists by 18.3 per cent, Sinn Fein by a whopping 34.45 per cent and the SDLP by 15.1%.
The combined Nationalist vote, when confined to SF and the SDLP, rose by 28 per cent over the 2016 poll, which, remember, happened just nine months ago. That is an increase of nearly a third, an extraordinary upswing. The combined DUP and UUP first preference total rose, in contrast, by only 13 per cent, significant enough perhaps but less than half the Nationalist increase.
So we can conclude that both camps saw reasons to come out a vote in larger numbers than they did in May 2016 but Nationalists were much more strongly motivated than Unionists (assuming, as we must, that there has not been a major shift in population balances in the last nine months!).
So what happened since May 2016 to explain this disproportionate rise in Nationalists voting?
Well, Brexit happened for one thing. Although Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU, the UK-wide vote was to leave and the North has no choice but to abide by the wishes of the government in London. Since Nationalists are more pro-European than Unionists, it is safe to assume they are not happy at any of this.
But so unhappy as to turn out in such larger numbers in an election which was not about the EU and which will not affect the outcome of the Brexit negotiations? I think not.
The other thing that happened was, of course, the so-called ‘cash for ash’ crisis – or rather the way Arlene Foster, the DUP First Minister and her colleagues handled the whole matter, which was with an arrogance and hubris that was breathtaking and with more than a hint of sectarianism.
But was it a vote for Irish unity?
Only inasmuch as the crisis touched upon the root cause of the Troubles and the North’s long, bloody decades of violence, which Nationalists traditionally frame in the form of a question: Is Northern Ireland reformable? Or put another way: will Unionists ever come to equal terms with their Nationalist neighbours?
It is when the answer to that question is in the negative, or trending towards the negative that Nationalists turn to their traditional Defenders. I think that is what we saw last week and for a more detailed explanation of why that happened one need only read this Irish Times report of Arlene Foster’s speech at the launch of her party’s manifesto on early February:
The Irish Times
February 7, 2017 Tuesday
Foster targets Adams as she dismisses SF demand for Irish language Act;
If you feed crocodile it will keep coming back for more, says DUP leader
By Gerry Moriarty
The Northern Assembly election snapped into action yesterday with DUP leader Arlene Foster telling Sinn Féin there was no chance of its demand for an Irish language Act being accepted.
Ms Foster also warned unionists that if they did not rally behind the DUP, Sinn Féin could win the most seats and therefore be entitled to take the first minister post after polling day on March 2nd.
One of the key issues Sinn Féin is pushing for in this election is new Irish language legislation, but the DUP leader insisted it would not happen when launching her party’s election campaign in Lurgan, Co Armagh, yesterday.
“I will never accede to an Irish language Act,” she said. She said more people in Northern Ireland spoke Polish than Irish. “Maybe we should have a Polish language Act as well?” she asked.
“If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back and looking for more.”
This prompted a terse response from Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams when he later introduced his election candidates at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast. “See you later, alligator,” he said.
Despite this withering response, Ms Foster focused on presenting Mr Adams as the unionist bogeyman for this election at her campaign launch.
She suggested that, but for the illness of former deputy first minister Martin McGuinness, the crisis over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme need not have led to the collapse of Stormont.
Ms Foster said the “cash for ash” crisis, which could result in an overspend of up to £490 million over the next 19 years, “was not the cause but became the excuse to call this election”.
She accused Mr Adams in his “valedictory” period as leader of seizing this opportunity to push a wider united Ireland republican agenda rather than the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
She also claimed that Sinn Féin’s new Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill was acting under the diktat of Mr Adams.
“Michelle O’Neill was installed by Gerry Adams and she will be instructed by Gerry Adams,” said Ms Foster.
The DUP leader focused on Mr Adams a number of times in her speech and repeated that Ms O’Neill was “handpicked” to do his bidding.
“So let’s be clear, at this election Gerry Adams is no longer in the shadows, he is front and centre of Sinn Féin’s campaign. He is their leader and hoping for the opportunity to implement his radical agenda for Northern Ireland,” she said.
The DUP leader said “nobody feels worse” about RHI than she did, that “mistakes were made”, that “things could have been handled better”, but that she “did nothing wrong”.
She was confident the public inquiry into the controversy announced last month by Sinn Féin Minister for Finance Máirtín Ó Muilleoir would exonerate her and her party of any wrongdoing.
“My name will be entirely cleared and the name of this party will be cleared as well,” she said.
Ms O’Neill refused to respond to the claim that she was working to Mr Adams’s agenda. “We are not interested in negativity,” she said.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, when launching his party’s election campaign, said that despite their differences he and his party could work with the Ulster Unionist Party and its leader Mike Nesbitt “to make Northern Ireland work”.
“This place only works if nationalism and unionism works together,” he said.
“We stand by that vision of an Ireland in which different traditions can live and work and even argue with safety and security. I would remind those who continue to criticise that it’s a vision that Wolfe Tone came up with a good name for many years ago: it’s called Irish republicanism.”
People Before Profit, which has seven candidates standing in six constituencies, accused Sinn Féin of moving into the centre ground and leaving its working-class base exposed.
Its Foyle candidate, outgoing MLA Eamonn McCann, said his party was not specifically targeting Sinn Féin and appealed for DUP voters to join its “genuinely radical” alternative to the last DUP-Sinn Féin administration.