I often hear the refrain “nothing ever changes in this place” and “politics always stays the same” but as CS Lewis once said, 'Isn't it funny how day by day nothing changes but when you look back, everything is different?' Since 1998, Northern Ireland has witnessed many different and remarkable electoral shifts that have changed the very nature of our local politics in a whole host of ways. This article will look at the rise of the DUP and Sinn Fein alongside the recent rise of the Alliance Party. Furthermore, it will look at the changes in voter turnout since 1998.
Northern Ireland has always been able to boast of an incredibly engaged electorate during its regional campaigns. In all but one election, Northern Ireland has led Scotland and Wales in turnout in devolved elections. Since 1998, we have enjoyed an average turnout rate of 60%, which compares favourably to an average of 55% in Scotland and 44% in Wales. This positive positioning in the wider UK context, however since 1998, Northern Ireland has seen fluctuating turnout that has coincided with moments of stability in our local politics. When we have had stable institutions, turnout has typically fallen, whereas when either the institutions have collapsed or there is a much-polarised context it remains high or increases.
The highest turnout we have ever had at an Assembly Election was the first in 1998, with 69% of voters coming out to the polls to elect their new MLAs to operate the institutions created under the Good Friday Agreement. Whilst 69% is a high turnout by today’s standards it would be remise not to point out that it was more than 10 percentage points down on the turnout in the referendum just a month earlier. That represents more than 100,000 people who opted to cast a ballot in the referendum, not voting in the assembly election.
The turnout rates in post-Good Friday Agreement elections have fallen further still. The Assembly Election in 2016 recorded the lowest turnout of just under 55% and even more contested elections have not reached the 1998 highpoint with the 2017 Assembly Election recording a turnout rate of just under 65%.
Clearly, for many voters, a mix of believing the job was done in the referendum and then disillusionment with the dysfunction that then followed afterwards led to a strong degree of apathy amongst the electorate.
As with our turnout, there have also been huge shifts in party support since 1998. The leading architects of the Good Friday Agreement, the UUP and SDLP have not benefitted from one of their main achievements. At Assembly Elections over the past two decades, their story has been once of decline and shrinking influence within the devolved institutions. On the other hand, Sinn Fein and the DUP have risen to dominant their respective political movements, with Alliance surging in recent times to achieve results since 2016.
Within nationalism the shift has been profound. In 1998, the SDLP took a solid 55% of the overall nationalist vote to Sinn Fein’s 44%. By 2003, this flipped over to Sinn Fein taking 58% of the nationalist vote, to the SDLP’s 42%. The Sinn Fein dominance has only grown since 2003, with the party taking a record north of 70% of the nationalist vote and the SDLP falling back to 22%. Whilst the number of Nationalist MLAs fell back in 2022 (39-35), the dominance of Sinn Fein is growing within this bloc of voters.
We have also witnessed the same profound shift within Unionism since 1998, although the UUP did not have the same command of the unionist vote that the SDLP did. In 1998, the UUP took 42% of the Unionist vote. Their main rivals the DUP took just under 36% with the rest being made up by the collection of other unionist parties that were contesting elections (PUP, UK Unionists and Independents). By 2003, the dramatic shift within Unionism came from the implosion of the minor unionist parties, to the benefit of the DUP. Over-taking the UUP, the DUP took just under 50% of the unionist vote with their main rivals improving their own score taking 44%. The competition between the two parties helped lift the combined Unionist vote from 1998 and the number of unionists elected to the Assembly.
2003 would be the last genuinely competitive election within Unionism. Since 2007, the DUP have consistently taken a majority of the Unionist vote at Assembly level with the UUP falling back. The arrival of the TUV on the political stage has not significantly damaged the DUP’s overall position within unionism (except for the party’s vote in 2022).
Often the discourse in Northern Ireland focused on the dynamics within the communal blocs. However, both Unionism and Nationalism have seen fluctuating vote shares since 1998 with rises, declines and minor shifts characterising both. One bloc that has grown since 2003 is the “none of the above” voter base. In 2003, this bloc represented just 5.6% of voters. By 2022 this had risen to above 15% and has risen at every election (2007, 2011, 2016, 2017). The party which has benefited most from this rise has been the Alliance Party, with the party commanding above 80% of all voters who opt for this brand of politics.
The trends in Northern Ireland politics since 1998 can be summed up in one word, domination. Whilst the level of control that the DUP, Sinn Fein and Alliance have had within their respective blocs has risen (mostly) and went down, there is no question that since 2003, the era of very competitive races within Unionism and Nationalism in particular has ebbed away. Yet interestingly, the two main blocs are smaller forces within the Assembly chamber in 2022 than they were in 2017.
The beneficiaries of this have been the Alliance Party. Taking advantage of a wider pool of voters, the once near irrelevant political party of 1998, is now the third largest in the Assembly. This bloc of voters is also growing and gaining in confidence as they demand reform of the Good Friday institutions.
Politically, we are a long way from 1998. Looking back, all is different and small shifts are still occurring 25 years on.