Thursday, July 1, 2010

The 2009 balance sheet

As written by Horseman (RIP) in prior years, this blog (using a previous ulstersdoomed blog as a template) will examine the changes in the sizes of the two main religious blocks (Protestant and Catholic) during 2009 in order to get some idea of the changes in the relative sizes of the two main political blocks (unionist and nationalist).
Since we do not have any reliable statistics on migration, we are left with only the other components of the 'natural' evolution of the population to look at: births and deaths. In the context of politics, of course, a voter is 'born' at chronological age 18!


NISRA published their Press Notice on Deaths in Northern Ireland in 2009 in March, which provides the actual number of deaths for each age band (in Table 3). Combining this with the results of the 2001 Census (Table S306 : Age By Sex And Community Background (Religion Or Religion Brought Up In)), and moving the 2001 cohorts forward to more closely match their actual ages in 2009, it is possible to estimate the religious (and thus political) affiliations of the deceased people, and thereby to estimate the relative losses for each of the main political blocks.

The result is as follows. Of the 14,413 deaths in 2009, around 5,060 are likely to have been Catholic, 9,175 Protestant, and 178 'other' or no religion. From a political perspective, of course, only voters matter, so if we take only those of voting age, around 4,946 were Catholic, 9,074 Protestant, and 161 'other' or no religion. So, in the course of the single year 2009 unionism lost 4,128 more potential votes than nationalism through death.

In the 2007 Assembly elections unionism won 335,888 votes (48.7% of the total), to nationalism's 293,767 (42.6% of the total). The gap between the two main blocks was therefore 42,121 votes. In the 2007 Assembly election the turn-out was only 61.9%, so the 4,128 potential votes would normally represent only 2,556 actual votes (61.9% x 4,128). However, older people have a higher than average turnout rate, and thus the real losses to the two blocks through death is actually higher. There are a number of studies that show that older people are very likely to vote (in the order of 85%), while younger people have turnout rates of barely over 50% . So, out of the loss of 4,128 potential voters due to deaths the actual net loss to unionism may have been 3,303 actual votes, or 7.8% of its 2007 advantage. If the evolution of the electorate was dependent on deaths alone, unionism's lead would be cut to zero within 13 years!

But there is another factor - the new voters that the two main political blocks can expect to gain as voters reach their 18th birthdays.

New voters

This is a fairly easy calculation, as the people who turned 18 in 2009 will largely be those who were 10 in 2001, when the Census recorded their religions (in Table S306 : Age By Sex And Community Background (Religion Or Religion Brought Up In)). Migration may also play a small part, but since 18 year-olds who move (to university, for instance) tend to remain registered at their home address, if they vote at all, it is likely to be in the same place that they lived as children. The religious break-down of 10 year-olds in 2001 was as follows: Catholic – 13,124 (50.1%), Protestant – 11,803 (45.1%), other religion or none – 1,262 (4.8%).

So around 26,189 new voters came of age in 2009. For 1,262 of them no real conclusions can be drawn, but for the vast majority this blog's working hypothesis (reminder: that (constitutional) political preferences in the north of Ireland are very closely related to religious affiliation) tends to indicate a net gain for nationalism of 1,321 potential voters (though remember their low turn-out rate). If we combine these figures with those for deaths, we can calculate a rough balance sheet for 2009, taking the votes in the 2007 Assembly election, adding the new voters and subtracting the deaths. Allowance is made for the different turnout rates of younger and older people. While no data on this has been published specifically for Northern Ireland - a very politicised society - evidence from Britain shows that youthful disaffection is massive. This analysis will take this into account by estimating a conservative turnout rate of 80% for the older voters, and 50% for new voters.


The calculations below include the balance sheets for 2007 and 2008 as calculated in previous years:

(1) Nationalism
2007 Assembly election: 293,767 (42.6% of the total)

2007 gains - New voters: 13,352 x 50% = 6,676
2007 losses - Deaths (voting age only): 4,874 x 80% = 3,899

2008 gains - New voters: 12,902 x 50% = 6,451
2008 losses - Deaths (voting age only): 5,321 x 80% = 4,257

2009 gains – New voters: 13,124 x 50% = 6,562
2009 losses – Deaths (voting age only): 4,946 x 80% = 3,957

New total: 301,343

(2) Unionism
2007 Assembly election: 335,888 votes (48.7% of the total)

2007 gains - New voters: 11,941 x 50% = 5,970
2007 losses - Deaths (voting age only): 9,517 x 80% = 7,614

2008 gains - New voters: 11,904 x 50% = 5,952
2008 losses - Deaths (voting age only): 9,388 x 80% = 7,510

2009 gains – New voters: 11,803 x 50% = 5,902
2009 losses – Deaths (voting age only): 9,074 x 80% = 7,259

New total: 331,329

(3) Others or no religion
2007 Assembly election: 60,658 votes (8.8% of the total)

2007 gains - New voters: 1,110 x 50% = 555
2007 losses - Deaths (voting age only): 145 x 80% = 116

2008 gains - New voters: 1,157 x 50% = 579
2008 losses - Deaths (voting age only): 176 x 80% = 141

2009 gains – New voters: 1,262 x 50% = 631
2009 losses – Deaths (voting age only): 161 x 80% = 129

New total: 62,037

At the end of 2009, therefore, we might have expected a voting electorate of 694,709, of whom: 301,343 will vote nationalist (43.4%), 331,329 will vote unionist (47.7%), and 62,037 will vote for other candidates (8.9%).

The gap between nationalism and unionism, 42,121 votes in the 2007 Assembly election, would be reduced to 29,986, representing a reduction in this gap of 12,135. In only three years, therefore, unionism would have lost over 28% of its numerical superiority over nationalism.

2010, of course, allowed us an opportunity to test these assumptions against the results of the Westminster election. Although somewhat distorted by a low turnout (57.6%) which was significantly lower than the 2007 Assembly election (63.5%), it was intrusive to know that the percentages that voted for the three blocks were similar to those calculated above (unionist 50.5%, nationalist 42.0% and others 7.5%) and the gap between the unionist and nationalist totals was 57,102. Although the gap is higher than calculated above this may be attributed to a decrease in nationalist turnout (the average turnout in constituencies won by nationalists) of 9.9% compared to a 3.7% decrease in unionist turnout.


Last year we estimated that unionism had less than 9 years of numerical superiority left. The updating of the statistics to include 2009 shows that this estimate still stands, but since one of those years has now passed, unionism probably only has eight years left before it is equalled or overtaken by nationalism. This is a purely statistical calculation and turn-out rates or 'novelties' (like Alliance winning a seat in East Belfast) may influence the actual outcomes at each election – but in the long run the trend will probably continue, unless one or other block succeeds in attracting votes from its rival politico-ethno-religious group.


  1. Pleased to see someone has taken up where Horseman left off.

    Best way to honour his memory.

    Keep it coming.

  2. This was the last election where unionism holds the FM position as Horseman predicted. The next time it will be a nationalist, and unionism will begin to realize that it's the beginning of the end. Interesting times ahead, at this point FF will make moves north, SF will disappear over night as ordinary people align themselves with a new party with no bad history which could become acceptable to the people as a whole, never again will the Irish people be divided into protestant and catholic we will all be united.Unionism will no longer have any meaning and will fade into oblivion. Most will accept the new state and will go on to identify with it as all the Irish people will now be able to play their part in their country, Our destiny will now be decided by us and real meaningful link with the UK like a eurotunnel. The sate-let brought into existence out of a total disregard for democracy will be airbrushed out of existence by a simple democratic vote in a free republic. RIP Horseman!

  3. Good to see someone taking up the Ulster's Doomed mantle

  4. I think your calculations on deaths are generally fine, but think that some of the lost voters are already factored in. The hospitalised, the infirm and the very very old are not likely to vote.

    There is a point, which is before death, that voting falls down an old person's priorities, to be replaced by staying warm and indoors.