Teachers are fond of telling their pupils to ‘show their working out.’ Even if they don’t arrive at the correct answer, there is still merit in understanding the way in which they calculated it.
So, just for fun – and on the back of a napkin – let me try and sketch out the emerging electoral mathematics of a future border poll.
Let me start by saying that much – if not all – of the opinion polling around this issue is contested.
There is a twin problem: Too few polls from which to draw accurate conclusions – with some of them showing a large gap in support for Irish unity on a sliding scale between 27%-43%.
Clearly, they can’t all be right (or wrong).
More interesting are what actual votes tell us.
The recent local elections saw parties with a clear position in favour of Irish unity (for a variety of motives) on about 43% of the vote. A similar share to last year’s assembly election.
Meanwhile, analysis from the assembly’s library from last year showed that Alliance and Green candidates often transferred their support in their second preferences to Irish unity-supporting parties.
Unlike the assembly and local elections, a referendum is a binary choice. There is no preferential voting and you are either in favour of a proposition or against it. So let’s assume, for the purposes of this exercise, that those voters transferring to nationalist parties would vote for Irish unity in that border poll.
Now, let’s look at the census data that was published the other day, particularly the figures breaking down religious identity by age cohort. Of particular note is the 0-14 age group.
The results here are telling about the transformation – at the molecular level – of Northern Ireland’s population.
There are 365,218 children and young people in this age group. The data shows 172,961 of them are Catholics and 110,981 are Protestants.
A further 81,276 are not categorised (and, as the old census taker joke would have it, surely contain as many Catholic atheists as Protestant atheists).
If Belfast registers a small earth tremor, it will be James Craig spinning in his grave.
Catholic 0-14 year-olds now outnumber Protestants by 47-30%.
The obvious caveat applies: Not all Catholics are nationalists and not all Protestants are unionists, but we still know this serves as a useful shorthand.
(Also worth bearing in mind that because Protestants are more heavily weighted in the over-65 category they will experience a higher mortality rate – to put it delicately – further accentuating the age benefit United Irelanders can expect ahead of any vote).
Okay, computing all the above I get this.
The total Northern Ireland electorate is currently 1,293,971. This means a winning majority in a border poll on 100% turnout requires 646,985. (Plus one).
Now, not everyone will vote – even on such a dramatic occasion – so let’s adjust to a more realist target. How about 85% (the turnout for the Good Friday Agreement referendum was 81%).
This gives a target figure of 549,936. (Plus one).
The combined vote for unity-supporting parties in the 2022 assembly election was 351,200 (on a 63% turnout).
There were an additional 15,150 transfers from Alliance and the Greens to these other parties.
This gives you 366,350 votes against a winning post of 549,936. Exactly two-thirds (67%) of the total needed in this model.
Now, enter into the equation the likely timeline of a vote. 2030 is a reasonable point. (Throw in, too, the recent commitment from Labour Leader, Keir Starmer, to look at lowering the voting age to 16).
This means that of the 172,961 Catholics in the 0-14 census cohort, all of them above eight years of age are potential voters in a border poll held in seven years’ time.
Now, assuming each year has an equivalent number of children, that gives you 12,354 each. So the total number of 8-14 year-olds is potentially 74,126.
Added together with the 2022 party votes and you get 440,476. A gap from the winning line of just 109,460 – or fewer than one in five voters.
At this stage of the process – several years away from any poll – I would suggest this is a pretty commanding position to be in.
Two pretty big disclaimers, though.
First, I readily concede I am packing this equation with a lot of hypotheticals. Second, no-one is aiming for a narrow 50%+1 vote.
And there are other variables to consider, not least those who might be persuaded to vote on the basis of one of the campaigns presenting the more compelling argument. (Perish the thought!)
As I said at the start, this is all just for fun. Nevertheless, it still gives an insight into how United Irelanders might build a winning coalition when that border poll is eventually called.