Elections, near and far – Nicholas Whyte speaking ahead of his March 25 speech #imaginebelfast – Slugger O’Toole

Imagine it! The Belfast Festival of Ideas and Politics runs from March 21-27, and as part of a series of Democracy Day events on Friday March 25, election psephologist Nicholas Whyte talks about Where do we go from here? The 2022 Assembly election and a possible unity vote.

Two things go through Nicholas’ head as Election Day on May 5 approaches.

First, how will the big voting shifts we saw in the three elections we had in 2019 play out in reality?

“It looks like voters are a bit more conservative than we thought. I suspect the amount of change will be a little less than is considered possible in some circles.

“At the same time, elections mean change. And the result of the last Assembly election was actually quite close – the DUP only has one seat ahead of Sinn Féin, and the Nationalist and Unionist parties are roughly on par.

“So I think there’s potential for a historic change where nationalism overtakes unionism, whether it’s in seats or in votes or maybe in both, or maybe in neither, depending on exactly how the dice roll. [and] how the votes fall.

So far, Nicholas sees that the elections have had an anticipated relative or absolute majority of trade unionism.

“So things have changed, and things are changing. The question is how fast? And the question is: are we reaching a new balance? Essentially, we had a situation for the first 20 years of the century where voting patterns remained fairly stable. Or are we heading towards an imbalance, towards a dynamic situation where change accelerates and develops with each election? Which to some extent is what we saw at the turn of the century between 1996 and 2001… we really won’t know until we get the actual numbers from the ballot box the day after the election, when the counting will take place.

Second, Nicholas looks at the issue of holding a referendum.

He was closely involved in the independence processes of Montenegro and South Sudan, the last two countries to become independent by referendum. And also in Kosovo, even if they did not organize the referendum there.

“It’s actually quite rare to have a vote on whether your territory should be ruled by one country or a different country. Most of these votes include independence as one of the options. I found 21 previous [around the world] of votes where you don’t choose independence for your own patch, but [instead] what other country do you want to be part of.

“The most recent is actually the 1973 border survey in Northern Ireland! There has not been a similar vote since then.

“There were only three others since the Second World War, two in India on the way to independence, and one in West Africa. There were many more after the First World War and a few in the 19th century. It’s actually quite a rare phenomenon as opposed to just a referendum on independence or failure.

“Sometimes you get the reverse, you get countries actually giving up their independence through a referendum process. Newfoundland is the most recent case, they joined the rest of Canada rather than being separated in the late 1940s.

So on March 25, Nicholas will look beyond the border as it now stands, and look at other borders that have existed, that have changed, and reflect on what can be learned from ‘outside.

As a psephologist on the lookout for the full and final vote, what does Nicholas think of the opinion polls that will be released between now and Election Day?

“The problem with opinion polls is that they are good enough for the day they come out. And then after the election, when you have real votes to watch, they kind of disappear.

Respondents in Northern Ireland are not always so forthright or completely complete in declaring their voting intentions.

“I think we should apply a 2% margin of error to everything we’ve seen in opinion polls and I think that erases most of the story when you compare an opinion poll with the previous one, because the movements tend to be relatively small and within this margin of error.

“At the same time, the general direction is quite clear that according to the polls Sinn Fein is ahead of the DUP who are only marginally ahead of the other parties, if at all. The other parties being all Ulster Unionists, TUV and Alliance.

“It will be an interesting test of the opinion polls to see if they managed to capture this moment or if they somehow got it wrong with methodological issues. And there’s just no way of knowing that and I’m sympathetic to pollsters who try to navigate in the dark using a map, which they know has changed since the last time they were sailing in the dark and they don’t know what way.”

The event will be held on the University of Ulster campus in Belfast at 5pm on March 25. You can register for free on the festival website. And you’ll be just around the corner from the pub’s politics quiz at Sunflower Bar which starts at 8pm. Plenty of time to do a few rounds without a quiz after Nicholas’ speech!

And on the festival site, you’ll find all the other talks, walks, lectures, workshops, films, theater performances and more that will take place from March 21-27.

About Alma Ackerman

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