Political flux has hardened attitudes in NI, survey finds

Political attitudes in Northern Ireland have hardened following the Brexit run-up and the deadlock that resulted from the collapse of Stormont in 2017, a new academic study has found.

Political attitudes in Northern Ireland have hardened following the Brexit referendum and Stormont deadlock. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Political attitudes in Northern Ireland have hardened following the Brexit referendum and Stormont deadlock. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

The report – based on a 2019 Northern Ireland Life and Times (NILT) survey – reveals that the proportion of nationalist identifying as “very strongly” nationalist last year was the highest since 1998.

There was also a higher proportion of people identifying as unionist compared to the year before.

However, although the 39% or respondents identified as “neither” was the lowest for 15 years, this remains the most preferred of the three political categories listed.

The ‘Political attitudes at a time of flux’ survey was a joint venture between Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University.

The report was co-authored by Dr Katy Hayward and Ben Rosher from the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at QUB.

Other key findings include: that he majority of NILT respondents (from all communities) support the devolved institutions; there is strong support for the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement as the basis for governing Northern Ireland, although most would like to see some change to it, and that nationalists are strikingly more expectant and more in favour of Irish unity as a consequence of Brexit – in contrast to the majority of unionists who see Brexit as making no difference to their views regarding the prospect of Irish unification.

Commenting on the survey results, Dr Hayward said: “2019 was a fascinating year for politics in Northern Ireland. Extraordinary scenes from Westminster as the Brexit deadline was stretched further and further contrasted with the empty chamber in Stormont as we remained without a functioning devolved legislature.

“Against this background, three elections in a year saw notable success for the Alliance Party and Green Party. But analysing what this means in terms of wider political attitudes in Northern Ireland requires further evidence. This is what we have with the NILT survey, as our latest report shows.”

The survey was based on a representative sample of 1,203 people aged 18 years or over – responding to questions about relations between different communities living in Northern Ireland, including: migrant workers, Brexit, criminal justice system, road safety, and breastfeeding.

Co-author Ben Rosher said: “NILT has proven a useful tool for tracking changes (and continuities) over time in the political attitudes and identities of people in Northern Ireland and this is particularly true of a year of such significant flux as 2019.

“As well as repeating some questions from year to year, in 2019 NILT included new questions to give us more information on how people are responding to this remarkable political context.”

Full details, including tables of results, from the 2019 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey are available at: www.ark.ac.uk/nilt/