After the election, why is Nationalist turn out continuing to drop like a stone?

For all the breathless talk of movement towards a border poll, constitutionally the recent elections changed absolutely nothing. Nationalism came back with 9, MPs whilst the number of non nationalist MPs was also nine. Exactly the same as last time.

Anyone claiming the movement towards Alliance is constitutionally significant when the seats lost and won are North Down and Lagan Valley should understand Alliance is at its liveliest where religious integration is at its highest, which is in the east.

The one area where Sinn Féin looked like taking a seat (East Londonderry) was only possible because the TUV took a big chunk out of the bottom of Gregory Campbell’s previously comfortable mandate. Overall the unionist majority there remains solid.

As noted in my post last Friday there is now a western front (or an eastern one from a nationalist point of view), beyond which the only issues at play are demographics and sectarian identity. Issues which locally are both uncontroversial and settled.

This is also where we can see the largest drop in voter turnout in the First Past the Post Westminster elections. Drawn against figures from the first such context after the Belfast Agreement was signed West Tyrone f/e has dropped from 81% to 59%.

In the competitive east where voters are more likely to consider the performance (or non performance) of individual MPs there has been no change North Down and only a 4% drop next door in East Belfast. The biggest drop in turnout is nationalist.

This, I argued yesterday on Nolan, is somewhat a return to the norms of other similarly democratic spaces. There is also some evidence that the big turnouts of the early process years (80%, 82% and even 84%) comprised an element of vote stealing.

But there is also a sense that in most of those seats the purely sectarian nature of the contest has created a political lock-in in which the outcome seems inevitable, Therefore turnout has dropped by some 20 percentage points in both WT and MU.

An obvious answer to Mark Carruther’s question to Sinn Féin’s First Minister Michelle O’Neill as to why Sinn Féin’s manifesto was just seven pages (two as “introductions”) long is why do you need policies when you can win through sectarian division?

Another obvious response is that if your MPs don’t take their seats, there’s no need a manifesto? Yet it’s not as though these western areas aren’t in need of serious intervention. Prosperity stops at the end of two motorways built in the 60s.

In this chart ranking all Westminster seats by current measure of deprivation, only two nationalist seats find themselves ranked on the more prosperous side of the balance sheet: South Belfast and Mid Down (SDLP) and Michelle’s own seat of Mid Ulster.

With the exception of South Down, which sits in the middle column, the balance of these Sinn Fein sinecures (with Colum Eastwood’s Foyle) features in the most deprived constituencies in the whole UK. No border poll is going to solve that problem.

Another element driving down nationalist turnout is the anonymity of abstentionist MPs. The idea that any Labour government official is going to come knocking on Pat Cullen’s door rather than her knocking on theirs runs counter to experience.

Whilst most MPs in the competitive east become household names (often not for the best of reasons), getting elected as an MP who does not take their seat in Westminster is a fast track to obscurity. Without salary or profile, they simply disappear.

The west of Northern Ireland (just like the west in the south) has huge untapped potential. Mid Ulster is the exception, with a range of small but outward looking export businesses served by fast road transport to Belfast, east coast ports and the airport.

Yet the western dead-zone serves as an area of sectarian comfort where action in the present is exchanged for dubious promises of what could happen after a mystical reunification occurs at some vague point in the near future (on a date that never arrives).

What’s actually changed since the restart of Stormont is that with a Sinn Féin First Minister now comfortably ensconced in Stormont Castle the Northern Irish project now as much a Republican one as if ever was a Unionist one.

The idea unionist politicians don’t want a Catholic about the place dies a little more every time Emma Little Pengelly cedes first place to the “wee girl from Clonoe”; daily demonstrating respect for the mandate of nationalist voters across Northern Ireland.

And with a Labour Prime Minister (along with Fianna Fáil in the south) who innately gets the importance that successful local democratic agency is key to that settlement, investment opportunities for both public and private sectors are likely to grow.

Starmer’s fronting up on the issue of Casement Park on Monday won’t entail a single act of largesse by his government but will lean heavily on collaboration with the south and the GAA. But the key determinant of success will be leadership at Stormont.

That’s not going to be forgotten either. Starmer is a details man and he doesn’t forget (or forgive) easily. Those stoney faced shots with local politicians are intended to signal that he knows only too well what obscurantist games they’ve been playing.

For Sinn Féin it is smell the coffee time. They have long played the role of ‘objective’ observer or ‘outraged’ critic. In the south, it’s catching up with them. Their flat electoral performance is showing in the polls as they now trail both government parties.

In government, there is no such thing as just passing through. Yet for too long Sinn Fein has treated being at the top of government as if it were a tourist, and the lack of progress around them had nothing to do with its own considerable hegemony.

It’s now time for them to pick up the tools and show the rest of us exactly what they can do (rather than what they won’t).


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