Henry McDonald: The biggest task for unionists is to get out their non voters

There is an iron law of politics which states if you are being attacked by forces on your left and on your right simultaneously then you might just be on to something.

By Henry McDonald
Monday, 4th October 2021, 3:54 pm
Updated Tuesday, 5th October 2021, 7:44 am
It is not pacts that will reverse the declining unionist vote but the failure to encourage pro-Union supporters to put their X or their 1,2,3s on a ballot paper
It is not pacts that will reverse the declining unionist vote but the failure to encourage pro-Union supporters to put their X or their 1,2,3s on a ballot paper

So, it is with Doug Beattie

Ahead of his conference speech this coming Saturday the Ulster Unionist leader has faced withering criticism from the Alliance Party on one side and former DUP First Minister Peter Robinson on the other flank.

He been excoriated either for being too much like a traditional unionist or for being weak kneed over the need for a pan-unionism electoral pact.

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Henry McDonald is a former Guardian and Observer Ireland correspondent and author of books including a biography of David Trimble and 'INLA: Deadly Divisions'

The latter critique, articulated quite forcefully and lucidly by Peter Robinson in this newspaper on Friday, needs further objective examination.

Because in a sense any possible pre-election deal between Beattie’s party, Jeffrey Donaldson’s DUP or even Jim Allister and the TUV would be rendered as irrelevant unless a far greater electoral issues is not addressed: turnout.

According to recent studies of elections and public attitudes in Northern Ireland it is an objective fact that unionists are more inclined not to vote compared to nationalists.

In the University of Liverpool/Institute of Irish Studies’ comprehensive 30-page analysis of the 2019 general election and its aftermath in Northern Ireland that gap was more than ten percentage points.

Among those who said they prefer to remain within the UK 29.5% admitted they were “non-voters”.

The figure of “non-voters” among those who want to reunify with the rest of Ireland was 16.9%. The overwhelming majority therefore of those not inclined to enter a polling station were unionists.

The same study also broke down the percentages of those who didn’t vote by their normal party-political affiliations.

The highest group who failed to turn up at the ballot box were those who said they supported the DUP.

A whopping 23.5% of DUP supporters said they didn’t vote this time around. This compares to Sinn Fein were only 2.6% of their supporters failed to cast their vote.

Perhaps surprisingly the next party to suffer from apathy among its supporters was the Alliance Party where 12.6% Alliance minded citizens didn’t vote either.

Other credible public surveys and opinion polls find a consistent dichotomy between strong majority backing across the board for the union and a declining support for the main unionist parties at election time.

This cannot just be explained alone by a lack of co-operation between those parties and the shredding of the unionist ticket in various constituencies, which is caused by too many pro-Union candidates standing.

Political apathy of course plays a part especially in working class loyalist districts where all the social indices are negative and where a pervasive sense of hopelessness can take hold in communities.

As an outside observer it has always struck me as a bewildering paradox as to why these communities can pour so much energy and time into building bonfires, forming bands, organising mass parades but many of them cannot be galvanised to even get onto the electoral register let alone bother to vote.

Yet for many within loyalist areas where political apathy reigns there is also a sense of frustration over who to vote for.

One of my closest personal friends who would not turn against me if I described him as a true-blue loyalist who wears his unionism if not on his sleeve then at least on his Harrington jacket or parka coat. Although he has numerous nationalist and republican pals, as well as political agnostics like this one, my mate is unapologetic in his love of the Union.

And yet he will openly admit that he hasn’t voted for years even though he has turned up at anti-protocol demonstrations and marches of late.

When pressed as to why he is allergic to the ballot box, he explains that he has no one to vote for. He responds that the traditional unionist parties repel him given his social liberalism when it comes to issues like gay rights, abortion, mixed marriage etc.

This man is under the age of 35 and his attitudes reflect those of a large proportion of younger pro-Union cohort of the population. They might get out and vote to remain within the UK in any future border poll but at present they are not fired up politically to cast a vote for the parties dedicated to preserving that Union.

The haemorrhaging of the unionist vote of course cannot just be put down solely to voters like my liberal minded friend and many like him of his generation. However, the strategists (if they exist) within unionism should realise that it is not pacts or pre-election arrangements that will really reverse the trend of a declining vote for their parties.

It is the failure to encourage pro-Union supporters especially in some of the staunchest loyalist areas across Northern Ireland to put their X or their 1,2,3s on a ballot paper.

That is surely the greatest task facing Donaldson, Beattie and Allister as fresh Assembly elections loom over the horizon.

• Other articles by Henry McDonald below, beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter:

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