The emergence of a middle ground?

In my first post (here) about Identities in NI I described the rise of a group of Non-Religious people who now form a political sector almost as large as that of Catholics:

I suggested that the Non-Religious would vote Alliance.

In my second post (here) I showed that while None had been the most preferred party until around 2019, it was replaced by Alliance, particularly in the No Religion group. I also showed that the Non-Religious did not feel themselves part of either the Protestant community or the Catholic community.

I didn’t intend these posts to be part of a series, but my curiosity was piqued by these results. Using data from the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (here) I looked further.

Respondents to the Survey were asked, “Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a unionist, a nationalist or neither?” The (allowable) answers were Unionist, Nationalist, Neither, Other, Don’t know; the latter two had so few responses that I have ignored them. For all respondents we find:

Overall, most respondents now see themselves as neither Unionist or Nationalist.

If we sort this by religion, we find:

Those who describe themselves as Protestants generally cleave to a Unionist identity, and Catholics likewise adhere to a Nationalist identity, though a significant minority in both groups say they are Neither:

The Survey also gives these results by age groups, 18-24, 25-34, 35-44, 45-54, 55-64, and 65+. In a younger age group we find:

But in the oldest age group:

There is a gradual if erratic transition from young to old, with older respondents more likely to retain their Unionist or Nationalist identities: even so, Neither is increasingly popular.

Respondents were also asked, “Which of these best describes the way you think of yourself?” The allowable answers were: British, Irish, Ulster, Northern Irish, Other answer, Don’t know. (There is no breakdown for Other answer.)

If we look at the breakdown by religion we find:

This suggests the emergence of Northern Irish as an identity among those who also identify as Non-Religious. Among Protestants and Catholics the majority say they are British and Irish respectively, though a smaller number say they are Northern Irish. (Ulster as an identity is mostly a Protestant one, though a very minor one.)

We can see Northern Irish gradually replacing other identities in the young:

But not in older age groups:

Northern Irish is not defined in the Survey. It seems to be an identity specific to N Ireland, one that isn’t British or Irish. The Other identity is most obvious in younger people and represents migration from the Republic, GB and the EU. These people are Catholics and the Non-Religious; almost all Protestants are “home grown”.

• The Non-Religious now form a clear sector, around 28% of the population.

• A majority now say they are Neither Unionist or Nationalist.

• There is evidence of Northern Irish as an emerging identity.

These three ways of looking at identity are commoner in the young.

We can visualise these three groups graphically:

There is certainly an overlap between No Religion and Neither (meaning neither Unionist nor Nationalist), and some overlap with Northern Irish.

It might be wishful thinking to see these blending into a single identity:

But we might just be seeing the beginnings of a secular middle ground.

My thanks to SeaánUiNeill for his critical reading of earlier drafts.


Discover more from Slugger O'Toole

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

We are reader supported. Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger. While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.