Unionist voter apathy continues despite city hall Union Flag row

The local government and European elections will take place on May 22.
The local government and European elections will take place on May 22.

Despite claims the Union Flag row would invigorate the unionist electorate, thousands of people living in loyalist areas of east and north Belfast have still not registered to vote.

There has been some improvement in the percentage of eligible voters on the electoral roll in traditionally unionist areas as a whole. However, the majority of wards in east Belfast remain below the Northern Ireland average of 88.3 per cent.

Other mainly loyalist areas such as Woodvale in the north of the city (79.2 per cent) and Woodstock in south Belfast (69.1 per cent) lag well behind.

Even the loyalist heartland of the Shankill has only 81.4 per cent of potential voters registered.

By comparison, many of greater Belfast’s mainly nationalist areas such as Twinbrook, Poleglass and Andersonstown have a take up rate greater than 90 per cent.

PUP councillor John Kyle said any increase in unionist registration levels was welcome.

“I think 80 per cent or 85 per cent is a pretty good registration level in areas of urban deprivation – because within that you will have people who have drug and alcohol problems, people who are elderly and infirm, and those people often have difficulty in negotiating a registration process.

“When you take into consideration the particular social and health problems that are endemic in areas of high deprivation, that is not a bad registration level, but we would like to do better,” he said.

There are now more than 1.2 million people registered to vote in the Province compared to fewer than 1.1 million following the 2006 canvass.

Cllr Kyle added: “I think the nationalist/republican community has had a couple of decades working on this and we have had a year working on it.

“The other factor is, that at the last election a lot of people were registered but didn’t bother to vote.

“The PUP will be fielding more candidates in the next [council] election than they have done in the recent past.

“I would urge people, particularly in the unionist community, if they are uncertain whether they are registered or not, to check with the Electorial Office.”

Commenting on the lower percentage of unionists on register, DUP councillor Brian Kingston said: “We are conscious of it and last year we organised, in north Belfast, five electoral registration clinics.

“We had around 200 people on some of those evenings, including those who were there to renew their electoral registration cards.”

Cllr Kingston highlighted the legal requirement to register and added: “People should ensure that they are able to vote and that they use their vote.

“It is interesting that Woodvale has been identified as being lower than 80 per cent.

“That means there are 20 per cent not registered – they must take that opportunity.

“It is not too late.”

The difference between predominantly nationalist and unionist areas is less pronounced outside of Belfast and a number of unionist villages – including Macosquin in Co Londonderry (95.2 per cent) and Ahoghill in north Antrim (95 per cent) – have a well above average registration figure. The North Antrim constituency as a whole is above average at 90.5 per cent.

However, nationalist constituencies returning Sinn Fein MPs have the three highest overall take up rates across the province – Newry and Armagh (92.7 per cent), West Tyrone (92.2 per cent) and Mid Ulster (92 per cent).

Only South Belfast (70.5 per cent) has produced an overall lower return rate than the east and north of the city. The larger percentage of transient workers close to the city centre could be a major factor in some wards (Botanic and Windsor) having fewer than 40 per cent of eligible voters registered.