North vote sees over 80 per cent of transfers stay within main parties

 

The level of cross-community transfers in the North's Assembly election was low, writes Dr Sydney Elliott

Since the reintroduction of single transferrable voting in 1973, there have been expectations that this form of proportional representation would produce a closer relationship between votes polled and seats won.

This aspect has been fulfilled, and even the original reluctance of the Ulster Unionist Party has been overcome and it is accepted as "our own" electoral system.

However, it was the expectations of the preferential ballot that have not fulfilled expectations. The Northern Secretary in 1973, William Whitelaw, (the late Lord Whitelaw) expressed the hope that it would break down the two communal voting blocks of unionist and nationalist, and assist the young centre parties, especially Alliance.

However, the preferential ballot enables the voter to make the choice of party and to select candidates within each party. The choice could also be extreme nationalist or extreme unionist as well as the political centre.

The single transferrable vote uses a preferential ballot which allows voters to register their preferences for all candidates and parties by ranking them 1, 2, 3 etc.

Voters can express preferences between parties and between candidates within the same party, instead of making a single categorical choice.

The vote transfers at each stage provide a unique insight into the mind of the electorate on polling day.

Recent elections show an increasing sophistication in vote management exercised by the parties, and a high level of communal voting.

In the District Council elections of 1997, a year before the Belfast Agreement and the Assembly elections, the pattern of transfers was clear. The percentage transfers when candidates from the same party were present revealed the index of the cohesiveness of party preferences. The main parties achieved around 80 per cent of transfers to their continuing candidates.

In 1997, the highest average percentage was again achieved by Sinn Féin with 88.7 per cent, followed by SDLP with 85.1 per cent, APNI 78.3 per cent, UUP 76.5 per cent and DUP 76.2 per cent. The smaller parties were less successful in retaining transfers within their party.

The percentage transfers when candidates from the same party were no longer present, terminal transfers, give a good guide as to which party voters regarded as closest to their original choice.

In recent elections the lower preferences expressed by DUP and UUP voters had favoured one another strongly.

In 1997, 72.2 per cent of DUP terminal transfers went to UUP, compared to 69.1 per cent in 1993; and 62.5 per cent of UUP terminal transfers went to DUP, compared to 63.2 per cent in 1993.

Despite the similarity of the exchanges, the figure was not as high as in 1985, and indicated some change in respective voter perceptions. The dominance of DUP and UUP raised the question of where the voters supporting other unionist parties looked next.

The terminal transfers from unionist parties broke 52.5 per cent for UUP and 28.3 per cent for DUP, continuing a change in favour of UUP since 1989.

The other focus of attention for terminal vote transfers concerned the preference relationship between SDLP and Sinn Féin.

In 1982 at the Assembly election the number of instances was small but the average SDLP to SF transfer was 22.4 per cent and SF to SDLP 55.8 per cent. In 1985 34 per cent of SDLP transfer values on average went to SF and 50.5 per cent of SF transfer values to SDLP.

In 1989, some 32.6 per cent of SDLP terminal transfers went to SF, and 31.2 per cent of Sinn Féin preferences went to SDLP. Given the rhetoric since the end of 1987 it was surprising that the SDLP preference for SF fell only 2.8 per cent, while that of SF to SDLP fell by 17.9 per cent.

In 1993, 53.8 per cent of SDLP terminal transfer values went to SF, an increase of 21.2 per cent, while 45.5 per cent of SF transfer values went to SDLP, an increase of 14.3 per cent.

This reflected the changing public relationship between Mr Gerry Adams and Mr John Hume through the talks contact, and was especially noticeable in Belfast and the east.

In 1997, there was a marked increase in the disposition of the respective party voters to support the other party. The averaged percentage transfer from SDLP to SF was 59.9 per cent, and SF to SDLP 62.7 per cent. SDLP was the second choice of SF voters everywhere, but SF was the second choice of SDLP mainly in the west.

The picture which emerged from the transfers between SDLP and Sinn Féin was fairly clear. Their respective voters have a clear view of party identity: hence in transfers where each party had candidates present 88.7 per cent from SF and 85.1 per cent from SDLP remain within each party.

In terminal transfer situations, SDLP preferences went 66.7 per cent to Alliance and 59.9 per cent to SF. Sinn Féin terminal preferences were more favourable to SDLP in 1985 at 50.5 per cent, but fell in 1989 to 31.2 per cent and their percentage non-transferable increased.

In 1993 it increased to 45.5 per cent, and in 1997 to 62.7 per cent.

Until 1989 it was clear that the respective party voters regard the SDLP and Sinn Féin as competing rather than complementary nationalist parties. Since 1993 it is clear that the pattern had changed towards the complementary model.

In the first Assembly election in June 1998, there were expectations that a new voting cleavage would develop between parties in favour of the Good Friday agreement and those that opposed it. Voters told the exit polls that very few would give preferences beyond their own party. The intermediate transfers showed DUP retaining 72 per cent within the party, UUP 71 per cent, SDLP 70.5 per cent and SF 87 per cent. The number of terminal transfers was limited and perhaps too few to build generalisations. There were six instances of terminal transfers from UUP and 24.4 per cent went to SDLP, 35.8 per cent went to UKUP and 30.9 per cent went to DUP.

There were six instances of terminal transfers from SDLP: 10.3 per cent on average went to UUP, and 56 per cent to SF. SF transfers went 70 per cent to SDLP. DUP terminal transfers went 42 per cent to UUP.

Some looked to the election of Mr Danny O'Connor in East Antrim as a precursor because transfers from Mr Ken Robinson (UUP) had elected Mr O'Connor with a DUP candidate left as runner-up.

The District Council elections of 2001 were used by the main parties as a trial run for the second Assembly elections. Vote management schemes were in evidence. Party retention of votes was high, and the level of communal voting appeared to be increasing as the battle within unionism between DUP and UUP and within nationalism between SDLP and SF increased.

In the 2003 Assembly election, it was all too evident that the political parties were familiar with vote management tactics to combat the voting power of the elector under the single transferable vote.

When the main parties have candidates still running, between 80 and 90 per cent of transfers remain within the party. This means the correct number of candidates must be nominated if the maximum number of candidates are to be returned.

The interest then switches to terminal transfers, where the party no longer has a candidate in play. The transfers to other parties at this stage reflects the voters' choice of party closest to the original choice. It may also reflect party advice concerning the retention of support within the same community.

In the Assembly election last week there were some 160 transfer stages during the count. Some 80 were in circumstances where candidates of the same party were still in the running; 20 involved the elimination of more than one candidate where the origin of the transfer values was unclear. There were 60 terminal transfers which are the subject of this analysis.

The tendency for small parties is to transfer to the main party within the same communal block.

The four main parties, DUP, SF, UUP and SDLP, were the subject of 30 terminal transfers, and the quantities and direction of transfers was interesting. There were 13 instances of terminal transfers from the DUP and an average of 37.5 to UUP candidates.

There were some high transfers to UUP, with 98 per cent in West Tyrone, to mid-90 per cent in Upper Bann. There were high levels of non-transferrables in East Belfast, East Londonderry and Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

In North Antrim, North Belfast, Strangford and South Down the party advice seems to have been to prefer the smaller unionist parties before UUP. In the eight instances of UUP terminal transfers there were no DUP candidates available to receive transfers.

There was an an average of 41.8 per cent transfers to SDLP in the eight instances. The highest was 72.6 per cent in Upper Bann, followed by 61.8 per cent in Mid Ulster and 44.5 per cent in Foyle.

In contrast with a transfer of 0.6 per cent to SF, the figures for SDLP look like a conscious attempt to extend the support first seen in 1998.

The four instances of SDLP terminal transfers showed an average of 42 per cent for SF, 23.5 per cent for Alliance, and 15.6 per cent for UUP.

Sinn Féin transfers were virtually in one direction - towards SDLP. In the five instances the average to SDLP was 83.4 per cent: in East Londonderry it was 98.5 per cent but in Mid Ulster only 62 per cent. Less than 1 per cent went to UUP.

The level of cross-community transfers was low. There were some signs of increased activity between the UUP and SDLP, but it was a poor reflection of the hopes in 1973.

The question could be asked whether an electoral system which maximises communal choice and ensures so little dependence on the other community for success fits the current needs in Northern Ireland.

  • Dr Sydney Elliott is a senior lecturer at the school of politics and international studies, Queen's University Belfast