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In the Crosswires: The Joys of Researching Northern Ireland

This week on the PaCCS blog, The University of Liverpool’s Professor Peter Shirlow writes about his recently published work on attitudinal survey of households in Northern Ireland.

In December 2019, Social Market Research (SMR) was appointed to conduct the 2019 Northern Ireland General Election Survey on behalf of academics from Politics and the Institute of Irish Studies (Liverpool), University of Leeds, The London School of Economics and Political Science, and the University of Aberdeen. It was the fourth such survey after Westminster Elections conducted by the team. The survey was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Despite being a social attitudes survey with coherence around the sampling frame we have come under sustained criticism, questioned on our motives and castigated in an attempted shaming.

Our crime?  We produced finding that showed between 2010 and 2019 the share of Protestants who support remaining in the UK grew from 90.3% to 94.5%.  In the same period the share of Catholics supportive of remaining in the union declined from 17.8% to 13.6%. More voters agree (40.3%) than disagree (30.9%) that the reunification of Ireland will happen. Overall, only 29% wanted Irish unity. Showing as we do that the constitutional question contains many in our 2003 household sample who are ambiguous or undecided or who wish to remain in the UK seemed counter-intuitive to others who it seems have never conducted a survey but seem to know simply because they do.

For sections within the Irish republican keyboard community we were involved in fixing the data. A peculiar interpretation given some in the research team are pro-Irish unity. In the febrile environment in Northern Ireland we had to when doing media interviews to state that the research team included variant constitutional allegiances. When that was made clear we were told those who wanting Irish unity would not say so when completing the survey. Although multiple respondents told us they voted for pro-Irish unity parties. In our survey 37% said they voted Sinn Fein or SDLP compared to a combined vote in December 2019 of 37.7%. The idea that our survey base was unrepresentative is simply staggering.

What such critics do not capture is that this is a survey of the electorate is stratified and includes non-voters who tend to be less precise in their constitutional desires. All very peculiar but probably less so in the post-truth world and even less so when researching Northern Ireland where post-truth has been a norm for decades.

Beyond that noise and clamour regarding our neutrality and even ability we also find in these surveys a growth in liberal attitudes highlights and a profound divide between younger people and their parents and grandparents continues. SF and DUP voters are less socially liberal and inter-community minded than most other groups with non-voters and those who do not state a religion tending to be more socially progressive. Younger Catholics and Protestants, especially non-voters, generally agree on social and inter-community issues. Some right-wing unionist bloggers asserted that such ideas were folly. Such  liberalism among Protestant we were informed was manufactured by us. We were even informed that we were liberal elite lackeys in the pay of George Soros.

Beyond such nonsense, these shift and agreements across the community divide have largely been ignored. It does not make ‘good’ press when you show that 56.1% of SF and 47.5% of DUP voters would prefer to send their children to an own-religion school whereas a mere 18.6% of young Catholics non-voters and 14.8% of young Protestant non-voters agreed (aged 18-44). Overall, 33.4% agreed that they would prefer to send their children to an own-religion school. To show that society is becoming more tolerant just does not fit with a media that sees conflict and sectarianism in every turn. The war is over. It is time for peace journalism.

When asked ‘would you mind if a close relative was to marry someone from a different religion?’ 61.7% stated that they ‘would not mind’. 83.7% of younger Protestant non-voters and 69.0% of younger Catholics non-voters agreed. Only 54.5% of DUP and 47.7% of Sinn Fein (SF) voters agreed. More evidence the voters of the two main parties are out of line with the electorate.

We find the same when examining  ‘it was right to make same sex marriage legal in Northern Ireland’? 51.4% agreed. Again, younger Protestant non-voters were most supportive at 73.7%. 62.7% of their Catholics equivalent agreed and 59.9% aged 18-45 compared to 43.7% aged 45+ were supportive. In comparison 51.6% of SF compared to 42.6% of DUP voters agree to marriage equality.

If anything, this hostility or proxy war from those challenging from cyber space, irrespective of their political background, is to shut down objective research findings. They prefer monologue over dialogue. Our work is robust and does not fall on deaf ears. Northern Ireland is changing and mostly for the better. We do not fashion or affect such social and cultural shifts. We merely measure them and those who listen to what we say know that. The others are fearful of leaving the ruins of the past. Those who react positively ultimately wish to move on and beyond a destabilizing past.

Prof. Peter Shirlow FaCSS is Director of the Institute of Irish Studies and co-author of https://www.liverpool.ac.uk/humanities-and-social-sciences/research/research-themes/transforming-conflict/ni-election-survey-19/ 

This post is part of our Spotlight on Conflict & Post-Conflict Research Series, which will be running on throughout the month of March.