Religious polarisation as bad as it was before GFA: poll

A copy of the Good Friday Agreement was delivered to tens of thousands of homes before the vote in 1998
A copy of the Good Friday Agreement was delivered to tens of thousands of homes before the vote in 1998

Two decades after the Belfast Agreement, people in Northern Ireland feel much safer – but the communal divide has not been broken down, according to a new poll.

Significantly, the evidence undermines the widespread perception in Northern Ireland that the post-Good Friday Agreement generation is less polarised than that of its parents and grandparents.

The Sky Data poll for Sky News found that just over half of people said that most or all of their close friends are from their side of the Catholic-Protestant religious divide.

The polling found that greater numbers of DUP voters (62%) and Sinn Féin voters (65%) said that most or all of their close friends are Protestant or Catholic respectively.

But it is the breakdown in those figures showing equal polarisation among young people which will most alarm those who hoped that the agreement would at least give the space for a new generation to develop in a less divided society.

Among 18-34 year-olds, 58% told the pollsters that most of their friends are of the same religion – as high as any other age group, while 26% said half and 9% say less than half or none.

However, the picture may not be as bleak as suggested by looking at the Sky Data poll in isolation.

More than one in 10 marriages in Northern Ireland are now across the communal divide and the number of children in integrated schools – where Catholic and Protestant children mix in their formative years – has about doubled since the Agreement.

The polling also shows a lack of consensus about whether the religious divide has become less clear over the last 20 years.

Exactly half of people think that divisions between Catholics and Protestants are less deep now than they were at the time of the agreement, while 47% think they are the same (23%) or are deeper (24%).

The polling also found that most people feel more physically safe than before the agreement, with 61% feeling safer now than in 1998 and 9% feeling less safe.

Pollsters interviewed a nationally representative sample of 1,140 Northern Irish Sky customers online from March 16-19.