Voting And Identity …In Black and Whyte


Nicholas Whyte is now Visiting Professor at University of Ulster. Professor Whyte is the main man behind the Ark Elections website, a treasure trove of statistics on elections.
So …who cares about Voting and Identity.
Well…about Voting. In 1996 Nicholas Whyte was on a panel of three candidates who got around 1,600 votes in North Belfast “Forum” election.
He mentioned this during his lecture. He jokkingly paid tribute to the 95% of the electorate who did not vote for him, sending him off on a successful academic career. And more so the 5% who did vote him.
And…about Identity…well he stood for the Alliance Party. But I dont think he mentioned that. Apologies if I am wrong.

It is of course a fact that many Norn Iron votes are cast on the basis of “Identity” rather than a raft of policies. It is an article of faith of LetsGetAlongerism that this is a very bad thing. Catholics and/or Nationalists go into a polling station and commit to Sinn Féin or SDLP. Protestants and/or Unionists go into a poling station and commit to DUP, UUP or TUV. Allegedly sensible souls vote Alliance or Green.

For as long as I can recall, Britain has been held as an example of how to do it. In Britain, sensible people study manifestos weigh up what is best for the country and sensibly vote Conservative or Labour…or maybe Liberal Democrat. Are they unaffected by “Identity”?
How do we explain that the Conservative Party and Labour Party cannot even save a deposit in a Westminster General Election in any Norn Iron constituency?
Well we identify ourselves as “Irish” which is a very bad thing ….apparently.
Or we identify ourselves as “British” which is not nearly so bad….apparently.
On the other hand, if we identify ourselves as “Norn Irish” we are absolutely brilliant.

Anyway Professor Whyte started his lecture by pointing out his distaste for the labels
PUL (Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist) And CNR (Catholic-Nationalist-Republican). I share his distaste. It is lazy and a little bit insulting.
Some figures from the 2011 Census.
Protestants 41.6% ….Catholics 40.8% ….Others 17.0%
but the voting figures for 2014 show unionists getting almost 48% of the vote and nationalists around 38%.
Of course 2014 was a bad year for the nationalist parties and a good one for unionists. The “true” nationalist sentiment is around
In terms of Identity.
The 2011 Census… Around 40% claim to be British. And just 25% Irish and 21% say “Northern Irish”
Professor Whyte claims “we are complex” and these figures dont seem to add up. Is Northern Irish a safe, non-contentious statement?
Is Britishness overstated?

Professor Whyte then underscored those wards which are more British. And those which are more Irish.
The lesson he draws is that Identity is “looser”. That our politics has become more “normal” and that the voting turnout in North of Ireland is now surprisingly lower than mainland Britain. Indeed of 650 Westminster seats, only Fermanagh-South Tyrone is in the Top 400 of voter turnout.
Are people turned off by politics in Northern Ireland.
Personally I think the Assembly is where the real action (or do I mean inaction) is.

The Norn Iron five-party choice is now embedded, static for thirty years.

The audience…well academics. Some Masters students, two Sluggerites (Brian and Alan). And a small group of Alliance folks from North Down, including Andrew Muir, the Westminster candidate and wedding cake addict. Quintin Oliver of Stratagem was there. Its never a proper LetsGetAlongerist event until Quintin graces it with his presence.

Questions to Professor Whyte.

Well….probably the most sensible one was the one posed by someone at the back of the room. The audience member pointed out he had been voting for forty five years and in each of these years, people had complained about Norn Iron politics being tribal and that we should look to Britain, where politics were about left and right. Progressively we are moving from Identity to Policy, while Britain is moving from Policy to Identity…”White Van Man”, “Worcester Woman”….UKIP, SNP, Greeks versus Brusells, American Tea Party….isnt everything as tribal as we are?

You may agree this is a sensible question. I think so….but then I asked it. You might wonder about Nicholas Whyte’s answer. Well….pointedly he never said a word.

I cant say that I am surprised. It was after all a LetsGetAlongerist thing. There are certain default “truths” among them. To be so self-declared as “moderates”, LetsGetAlongerists are surprisingly intolerant of others.

You may recall several months ago, I attended a QUB seminar on “Peace Journalism” and I made some self deprecating remarks about myself to highlight my problems with LetsGetAlongerism. The chair….BBC churchy-type, William Cawley held me to ridicule, dismissed me as a “nutter”. My own fault really. I wont make that mistake again.

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6 Responses to Voting And Identity …In Black and Whyte

  1. Political Tourist says:

    I take it when folks say “British politics” they really mean England.
    Scottish politics is going in a completely different direction.
    Even those living in an Alliance/Unionist political bubble must have noticed that.

    • They would have meant British …England, Scotland, Wales in the past.
      It was about ideas not about Identity.
      In May, Scotland will be voting with Identity.
      But so will a lot of English people….UKIP is defined more on issues of Identity than policy.

      And even Labour voters might be going out to vote Labour on the basis of Identity and Nostalgia rather than Policy.
      And Tories also of course.
      When people talk about a hung parliament and the possibility of a coalition between the Labour Party and the Tory Party, it shows there is really not the same policy differences as before.
      Both have been racing to the Middle for years.

  2. Godfrey Dilston says:

    Nicholas Whyte is often said in media circles to be Northern Ireland’s second most intelligent man (after Malachi O’Doherty).

  3. Sean_Tomas says:

    Would I be right in saying that the term “northern irish” has gotten more popular in the media these past few years? As far as voting identity patterns go, you have three sections. In the green corner, you have the nationalists, who see themselves as Irish. In the Orange corner you have people who see themselves as British.
    In the middle, you have people who are a bit nervy/ambivalent about identity, and are happy to call/see themselves as Northern Irish. People who see themselves as british use the term northern irish, to refer to themselves, even though they see themselves as british, nationalists less so.
    Could you still use the term, “northern irish”, yet still see yourself as a nationalist? There are many contradictions in identity here, no point in going into detail as everyone could hazard a guess as to what they are.
    The middle ground is the area that the parties need to be really angling for, the people who never bother their arses to vote.

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