Using data from the 2015 Northern Ireland Election Survey, Bernadette C. Hayes examines differences in electoral turnout between Protestant and Catholic women in Northern Ireland. She finds that Catholic women are significantly more likely to vote than Protestant women. She explains the implications.

Political participation and electoral turnout are considered the life blood of a healthy democracy. This is considered particularly the case for societies emerging from deep-seated ethnic conflict. In fact, the holding of elections and the electoral participation of its citizens is now viewed as a key factor in ensuring the stability and legitimacy of the new political arrangements.

Yet, what we know about the long-term consequences of electoral participation for the advancement of democracy and political stability in emerging democracies and post-conflict societies is both contradictory and limited, especially when differences among women are considered.

Despite increasing recognition as to the importance of the political contribution of women for the successful transition of societies emerging from conflict, the electoral mobilization of citizens along ethnic and/or religious lines and the calculation of the ‘ethnic/religious headcount’ has dominated the political agenda. This is particularly the case when consociational forms of power-sharing are considered, where women’s electoral participation and support for these new political arrangements is viewed as of secondary significance at best, if not totally irrelevant.

Using nationally representative data from the 2015 Northern Ireland General Election Survey, the results of this investigation calls into question this assumption and points to the need to include female political participation and representation as the heart of consociational power-sharing arrangements. Our arguments in support of this proposition are fourfold.

First, our results confirm the existence of a significant religious gap in women’s electoral participation. Protestant women are notably less likely to turn out to vote than Catholic women. More specifically, whereas 70 per cent of Catholic women claimed to have voted in the 2015 Westminster election, the equivalent figure among Protestant women was markedly lower at just 55 per cent, or a religious gap of 15 percentage points.

Second, these religious differences in turnout among women are not a recent phenomenon or just a by-product of one particular election – the 2015 Westminster election – but date from 1998 onwards, and coincide with the first assembly elections based on the consociational power-sharing arrangements.

Third, this religious gap in turnout among women is not only greater than the religious gap among men but also than the gap in turnout between the two main religious communities – Protestant and Catholic – as a whole.

Fourth, while only future research can determine the extent to which this female gap in electoral turnout between the two religious communities continues for the foreseeable future the notable size of the gap suggests that it will remain for some time to come.

Our results also confirm the importance of two key factors in consociational power-sharing arrangements – party attachment and trust in political leaders – in accounting for the religious gap among women. More so than any other issue, it was the greater antipathy among Protestant women towards the primary political agents involved in the electoral process – political parties and their leaders – which accounted for their lesser levels of political participation. Thus, contrary to the gender-blind assertions of consociational theorists, mechanisms to deal with the democratic deficit among Protestant women, or their much higher rates of abstention, must now lie at the heart of Northern Ireland’s politics, including its consociational power-sharing arrangements.

These findings have a number of implications for other societies emerging from deep-seated ethnic and/or religious conflict. First, post-conflict scholars must address the relationship between conflict resolution and gender. Despite the claims of consociational advocates, the impact of such power-sharing agreements is not a gender-neutral activity.

Second, greater consideration should be paid to the differential experiences of women in post-conflict societies. As a number of scholars have noted, women are not a homogeneous group. This is particularly so in post-conflict societies where women remain deeply divided by differing ethnic allegiances.

Finally, the results point to the crucial role of both political parties and their leaders in determining female political participation in the post-accord period. While much attention has been paid to the role of political parties in strengthening or moderating ethnic identities among voters via such consociational power-sharing arrangements, their role in perpetuating gender inequality and enhancing divisions among women has been much neglected.


Note: the above summarises the author’s published work in Parliamentary Affairs.

About the Author

Bernadette C. Hayes is Professor is Sociology and Director of the Institute of Conflict, Transition, and Peace Research (ICTPR) at the University of Aberdeen.



Image credit: StockSnap, Pixabay/Public Domain
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