“a large proportion of the general public in Northern Ireland do not feel engaged with the current system of governance.”

BBC NI political editor, Mark Devenport, had wondered just how bad the news from the Assembly’s Public Attitude Survey [pdf file] was that they chose to bury it ahead of the coverage of the Chancellor’s Spending Review.

Well now we know…

From the report’s “Key findings and implications” [pdf file]  (Added emphasis throughout)

It is clear from the survey findings that a large proportion of the general public in Northern Ireland do not feel engaged with the current system of governance. Only a minority feel that they have a say in how Northern Ireland (NI) is run, three quarters feel that the present system needs improvement and more are dissatisfied than satisfied with the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive. It will be challenging to increase the Assembly’s engagement with the public; however, there is an appetite for greater involvement which could be capitalised on with the appropriate actions and communications.

Current interest in, and knowledge of, the Assembly among people in NI is low. Two in five say they are interested and only a quarter feel that they have some knowledge of the Assembly. There is, however, significantly more interest in local issues and people also feel considerably more knowledgeable about these issues. Topics which are commonly discussed with family and friends include those that concern the work of the Assembly, for example, crime, education, healthcare and the economy. Demonstrating the link between the work of the Assembly and its committees, and these local issues could prove useful in helping to increase general public engagement.

One of the key challenges will be to engage 16-34 years olds, people in social classes C2DE and women, who have lower levels of knowledge and interest not just in the Assembly, but in current affairs generally.

Information about the Assembly is most frequently received through television, newspapers (local and national) and radio. There is less use of direct Assembly resources. Only one in eight have ever visited the NI Assembly website. Three in ten have visited Parliament Buildings, but only 4% have done so in the last year. Knowledge of, and attendance at, Assembly Roadshows is also very low.

There is some evidence to suggest that there is some confusion between the roles of the Assembly and the Executive. While the majority agree that Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) are responsible for representing the interests of their constituency residents, three quarters incorrectly believe that MLAs are also responsible for making decisions on how Northern Ireland is governed. If the public is unsure about the difference between the roles of the two bodies and their expectations of the Assembly are not being met as a result of this, it could lead to the development of apathy towards the Assembly. Emphasising the difference between the two may be a good starting point in the communications process to increase engagement with the Assembly.

In terms of overall satisfaction, individual MLAs do fare a little better than the Assembly as a whole. Knowledge of MLAs is also higher, with six in ten being able to correctly name one of their local MLAs. Satisfaction with MLAs and the Assembly increases among those who are able to name one of their MLAs and further still among those who have had contact with their MLAs. There may be scope to make more of the ‘faces of the Assembly’ given the slightly more positive image they have. Half of the general public would like to see MLAs representing the views of local people more or dealing with the issues of local constituents. Increasing the visibility of existing work by MLAs in these areas could potentially result in higher levels of satisfaction.

On that last point, could they mean rather than representing the interests of their party?

The “How much influence do you feel you have over decisionmaking in Northern Ireland?” figures are as follows.

No influence at all – 49%

Not very much influence – 40%

Some influence – 10%

A great deal of influence – 1%

Don’t know – 1%

The report adds

Unsurprisingly, perceived levels of influence on decision-making are highest among political activists (19% compared with 10% of non-activists).

And on the issue of timing…

Data was collected via the Ipsos MORI Northern Ireland Omnibus. Interviews were conducted on a face to face basis at 50 sampling points across Northern Ireland. 1,025 adults in Northern Ireland aged 16 plus were interviewed using Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing (CAPI). Fieldwork was completed from 30 November 2009 to 5 January 2010.

Adds  And, as Nevin has noted in the comments, the report is dated MARCH 2010

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  • Dan

    Breaking news that eh. I’ll bet some faceless suits got paid handsomely for it too.

  • anon

    Note the time the survey was carried out, just before the Hillsborough talks when the Executive wasn’t meeting. I’m not saying everything is rosy in the garden now, but this survey was definitely taken at the absolute low-point.

  • Pigeon Toes

    “No influence at all – 49%

    Not very much influence – 40%

    Some influence – 10%

    A great deal of influence – 1%

    Don’t know – 1%”

    Just how reliable are the figures? 😀

  • pippakin

    Is it possible anyone in the western world is happy at the way their governments are run.

    I can honestly say, with let me add, the deepest, most heartfelt sincerity that I am not at all happy with the way the current government has or is running Ireland.

  • The report is dated March 2010.

  • Halfer

    Interesting post Peter. Will this spark a debate as to how we improve democratic representation in the North or will it raise whether it’s possible to do this at all in any substantial manner.

  • Halfer

    101% turnout for the poll. Must have run by the Shinners.

  • Pete Baker

    I had missed that first time through.

    But I’ve now added that point to the original post.

  • Alias

    The NI public have a sharp grasp of reality since their actual level of control over their own affairs is consistent with their perceived level of control over them. On the other hand, the British state through its government, security services, quangoes, puppet parties, servile media, etc, has complete control over it.

    It completely destroys the myth that ‘the process’ produced anything that could be successfully mistaken for a democracy.

  • Best describes you:

    Unionist 35%

    Nationalist 24%

    Neither 38%

    Don’t know 2%

    Doesn’t look like a representative sample.

  • Pete Baker

    Now you’re jumping to conclusions.

    Can you think of another term that some might use to describe themselves?

    Beginning with ‘R’?

  • Pigeon Toes

    What about the missing 1% ?

  • Pete Baker

    And as Nicholas Whyte pointed out

    …the gap between Unionists and Nationalists has been steady at around 10 per cent since 1997.

  • Reluctant to answer?

  • PT, figures have been rounded up or down to the nearest percentage.

  • The Raven

    I refer again to my “own” constituency.

    Electorate of some 56,000. 33,000 turnout. The winner gets in on 12,000 votes. Turnout at some stations, 38%.

    What does that tell you?

  • Halfer

    that pluralism works in mysterious ways…

  • Here’s a paragraph from background to the report:

    “Following a review of the Assembly Secretariat in October 2007, it was recommended that a new Engagement Directorate should be established. This Directorate has overall responsibility for ensuring the general public in Northern Ireland is informed about the work of the Assembly. In 2008, the Directorate created a strategic plan to engage the Northern Ireland public and is based around four principles: engaging MLAs; engaging committees;
    engaging channels of influence; and engaging the public.”

    I can see no mention of the Engagement Directorate on the front page of the Assembly website. How can the public be engaged if the Directorate is buried somewhere in the bowels of Stormont? I can find no staff listing for the Directorate but eventually I discovered that the Director of Engagement is Dr Gareth McGrath.

    Now that name rings a bell. Dr McGrath is listed as a trustee of the mysterious Northern Ireland Assembly Business Trust – or as I’ve previously labelled it, the Thursday Club.

  • Pete, the Whyte U/N ratio is about 5/4 so a Unionist 35% would correspond to a Nationalist 28%.

  • Granni Trixie

    Better name would be “Thursday Boys Club”.

  • Interesting. Any chance of the Assembly running some research on something to do with bears and wood?

  • Tony Clerk

    The same review that led to the removal of the senior management team?

    So will Dr McGrath be picking up his P45?

    Or was that review just a flag of convenience for Willie Hay to remove the three Catholics and appoint his own (apparently ineffective) team?

  • Pigeon Toes

    “engaging channels of influence”

    Says it all…

  • Pigeon Toes

    “rounded up or down to the nearest percentage” should still equal 100%

  • Pigeon Toes


    FFS. No.

  • PT, I note that ‘engaging the public’ comes last 😉

  • Here’s what the boss said, Tony

    Rt Hon George Reid ex-SNP MSP: “This Report is independent and robust. It addresses the key issues of management within the Secretariat. And it provides a route map to the highest level of governance at Stormont, improved support for Members, a clear career path for staff, and engagement with the people of Northern Ireland.”

    Now you couldn’t quarrel with that …

  • Pete Baker

    Do you think we could refrain from rushing off to other territory?

  • Is speed dating the answer to better engagement? Moyle Councillors thinks so.

  • Well, Pete, what’s your ‘r’?

  • Other territory? Just widening the focus, Pete, the Assembly is one of the other partners in the engagement.

    From the report’s introduction:

    “The objectives of the research are to provide
    measurements of:
    ƒ General political awareness, such as levels of interest in politics, numbers of visits to the Assembly, voting patterns and intention to vote.
    ƒ Perceptions of the work of the Assembly, including levels and accuracy of perceived and actual knowledge of the same.
    ƒ Sources of political information and frequency of use.
    ƒ Views on the system of governance of Northern Ireland”

  • spige


  • Greenflag

    Pete Baker ,

    ‘a large proportion of the general public in Northern Ireland do not feel engaged with the current system of governance.’

    This is not a new phenomenon . It’s as old as the NI state itself. That thread headline could have been written anytime between 1920 – and yesterday and would have been accurate . The only point worth considering is whether the large proportion are larger or smaller than the proportion in earlier times .On that point I would guess the numbers are probably similar but the sectarian composition of the non engaged is less one sided than it used to be . And for that the GFA can claim the credit .

  • aquifer

    In response to the neo conservative agenda governments have been downsizing competitively, becoming a smaller fraction of the economy.

    Equality legislation compounds the disengagement problem as it lessens the chance of your representative obtaining unfair advantage for you, so why bother asking?

    We need to fund political parties adequately so that they can compete to engage the population, especially when the allegiance of both sides to democratic transformation here is a bit tentative.

    The usual alternative to democratic change is violent change, exept here where violence just begets violence and instransigence. So the consequences of not funding political parties here can be much more destructive.

    Not that they will notice in westminster, where the ceremonial surroundings flatter MPs into egostitical irrelevance.

  • Greenflag

    It tells you that for most people politicians are not as important as they ( the politicians) think they are . That said without the politicians what is called civil society in NI would quickly disintegrate.

    Think Somalia 🙁

  • Greenflag

    Myths can be powerful forces in any society and indeed in economics too. Consider the ‘myth’ of trickle down economics from the school of Friedman at the Chicago Fairy Tale School of Economics and consider how ‘trickle down’ has impoverished the US middle class- created 28 million unemployed , put 48 million on food stamps and left 50 million without health insurance while fighting the worlds first ‘Credit Card ‘ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by adding 3 trillion dollars to the USA deficit .

    So again as you never answered the last time you were put to the question 😉

    ‘What is YOUR alternative to the GFA ‘ ?

    And I mean one that has a chance of actually working given the economic , demographic, and political conditions extant in NI at this time?

  • Greenflag

    Nevin ,

    The 38% neither represents those people who are telling the survey people to p*** off and mind their own business -politely of course 😉 The 2 % represents immigrants who are still working on their ‘new’ political identities .

  • Greenflag

    ‘We need to fund political parties adequately ‘

    Are you sure ? I recall an argument being made one time in ROI that if only TD’s were paid more we’d get a much higher standard of governance and more effective legislation and much needed reform would be implemented sooner etc.

    If the population would prefer to watch TV ads or youtube or spend their time googling or on their cell phones texting or facebooking with their 11,567 friends or twittering their followers about their hovering presence over the toilet seat then that is the public’s right ;). If the politicians by their past actions , behaviours , and demonstrable lack of understanding of the economic world about them and their failure to deliver in practice the promises they were elected on then they have only themselves to blame .

    The plain people have a fair idea who really governs the country when all is said and done . And they are found a lot closer to Cleopatras Needle and Canary Wharf than to the Assembly or Westminster 🙁

  • Greenflag, you’d need to have statistics for other institutions across these two islands before pointing the finger at NI 😉

  • Greenflag, I opted for ‘reluctant to answer’; your ‘piss off’ could be closer to the mark. Pete seems reluctant to name his ‘r’ 🙂

  • Greenflag

    I think NI had a head start of about 60 years in the case of the smaller island and a bit longer in the case of the larger island 😉