Just under 60% of Catholics in Northern Ireland now categorise themselves as nationalist compared with 50% two years ago. 67% of Protestants now classified themselves as unionist compared with 55% in 2018.
After the past year of political trauma the big surprise in the NI Life and Times Survey for 2019 is not that there has been a hardening of political allegiances but that this has failed to polarise opinion for their finally incompatible causes. The remarkable fact is that most opinion has grouped around support for the Assembly which has provided the one glimmer of light in a darkening political scene dominated by continued confusion over Brexit. And that’s before we get to lack of grip over managing Covid.
In their commentary on the results, a new feature, Katy Hayward and Ben Rosher have identified nuances instead of the old cut and dried opinions. They add a health warning. Compared to election results, the survey over represents the Alliance Party and under represents Sinn Fein, (correction here) And it includes those who don’t support any party and presumably don’t vote. This explains how it appears to diverge from more frequent opinion polls which emphasise voting choices at a particular point in time.
That said, given that we are considering political attitudes overall, we should note that 44% of respondents to NILT said that they did not consider themselves likely to support any of the main political parties in an election (and the abstention rates at the polls in 2019 ranged from 38-55%)…
If 2019 is not a ‘blip’ and we are seeing a ‘retrenchment’ of identity positions, it is worth considering the strength of feeling in which people hold these identities. Although we have had a rise in the proportion of those identifying as Unionist, this increase seems not to mean a growing intensity of that Unionist identity. Instead, there are more saying that they ‘don’t know’ whether they would call themselves a ‘strong Unionist’, and the largest proportion of Unionists would say their Unionist identity is ‘fairly strong’. In contrast, among those who are Nationalist, there has been a significant strengthening of that identity in a short period of time. Indeed, those who are saying they are ‘very strong’ Nationalists is higher than it has ever been, and rose by 11 points in 2019 to 31 per cent.
Overall, NILT data across the past 20 years indicates a fairly steady rise in the proportion of those describing themselves as ‘very strong’ Unionists and Nationalists. These trends are particularly interesting given that they are not reflected in any major shift in people’s views on the prospects for Irish unification….
Among the overall population, only 30% said a united Ireland was likely within the next 20 years, while 46% said Irish unity was unlikely in the same time frame. Among unionists, 62% think a united Ireland is unlikely within the next 20 years. Significantly, 37% of nationalists also think there will not be Irish unity within the next two decades
These results suggest that most people in Northern Ireland are waiting to see how events turn out. Much depends on external events – the relationship with the EU and the future of the Union in GB , while leaving all to play for at home. With an unprecedented grand coalition about to be formed in Dublin excluding Sinn Fein , it’s premature to find a clear sight of the republican cause. In the North the interim position of defined harmony between the DUP and Sinn Fein may come under strain when the Covid crisis subsides or morph into a more stable relationship.
Meanwhile the Newsletter has been trying to whip up enthusiasm for a unionist narrative to counter the perceived triumph of Sinn Fein spin. We’re likely to hear much more of this as next year’s centenary of the Northern Ireland state approaches. There is certainly a unionist case to be made that has been lost amid the political and cultural compromises of power sharing.
Only at the eleventh hour of faltering unionist government did the nationalist community mount a sustained and effective challenge to unionist structural discrimination. For decades the old Nationalist party opted for Catholic solidarity over claiming their full share of investment in health and education from the unionist government to which Catholics were entitled as tax payers. But whatever may be said in mitigation for the unionist government, the verdict is unlikely to be reversed, that because it was charge for fifty uninterrupted years, it bore the main responsibility for the slide to violence if not its depths. During the Troubles mainstream unionists did work within the constraints to uphold law and order against rival paramilitaries (with lapses certainly). But a simple law and order defence for unionism will not suffice. A partial backward look is less than half of today’s story.
Efforts to revive unionism include rejecting any constitutional implications in Northern Ireland’s association with the single market. This is not as implausible at it might seem at first. Unionist business and agriculture welcomed the single market. They had always been natural traders south of the border, like those Fermanagh farmers, part-time members of the UDR, who were stalked and murdered on their way to market in Co Cavan.
Out of the Brexit debacle they must hope that a convincing Ulster unionism will join the Johnson government in emerging with more credit than seems likely at the moment from the Covid pandemic, claiming a UK victory for basic coordination with the devolved administrations, give or take the odd variation over timing . Fingers are tightly crossed that by the end of the year the EU negotiations will result in only a bump or two of friction at the borders. Unionists however would be unwise to assume that reversion to basic “Ulster” patriotism would strike much of an chord with the English nativism of the Conservative right , or indeed that rampant nativism will survive Johnson’s term. A more contemporary appeal to ” British Values” is likely to more successful on both sides of the water. Johnson still prides himself as a One Nation Tory and an internationally minded cultural sophisticate.
Once bitten, they would be advised not to put all their eggs in Johnson’s basket. Working the north- south ministerial council would produce far better results than relying on the illusion of a unionist veto on remaining within the single market.
The NILT survey tells us this is the sort of political behaviour most people want: for the two political poles to occupy the centre ground.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London