As the official opposition parties, the UUP and SDLP, talk more explicitly than ever before about transferring to each other, a major new piece of research shows the scale of the task facing them.
The academic study for the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) involved 2,366 voters filling in mock ballot papers to show how they voted in last year’s Assembly election.
The results of the research show that voters vote for an average of 3.4 candidates – despite the fact that in that election there were six seats up for grabs in each constituency (five this year).
The research shows that 24% of all Protestant preferences and 33% of Catholic preferences (in terms of first preference votes and transfers) go to non-unionist and non-nationalist candidates respectively, with 8% of preferences expressed by Catholic being for a unionist party at some point on their voting paper, and 6% of preferences by Protestants being for a nationalist party.
Just 4% of Protestants voted anywhere on their ballot paper for the SDLP – less than the percentage of Protestants who vote anywhere for the TUV (5%). Just 3% of Catholics gave any preference to the UUP.
The research also points to the DUP (2%) getting more Catholic first preferences than the UUP (1%), perhaps because of socially conservative Catholics looking beyond the DUP’s harder unionism to its first stance on social issues such as abortion.
Katie Ghose from the ERS said: “What this research shows is that STV opens the door for a more open and less divided politics. And while voters aren’t necessarily using it to the fullest extent yet, there is a window of opportunity for it to grow, when it comes to breaking down community barriers.
“What is clear from this unprecedented research is that STV is allowing a broad range of views to be expressed where this simply wouldn’t happen under First Past the Post – adding both diversity and openness to Northern Irish politics.”
Prof John Garry of Queen’s University said: “This research is the first of its kind, in terms of its in-depth look at how voters actually rank candidates and parties across communities.”
• South Belfast: Agapé Centre, 232 Lisburn Road, February 20, 7.30pm (Organised by Challenges NI, William Crawley chairing).
• Health: MAC, central Belfast, February 22, 1pm (The MAC and Belfast Healthy Cities).
• South Belfast: Mencap Centre, 5 School Road, February 22, 5.30pm. (Candidates speaking to individuals in groups about mental health, organised by Mencap)
• West Tyrone: Omagh Community House, February 23, 11am (Mencap, as above).
• Human Rights and Equality Hustings: Galway House, 165 York St, Belfast, February 24, 10am (Human Rights Consortium/Equality Coalition).
Send details of any public hustings events to firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 02890 897722.