Why Demographics is the Norwegian Blue of NI’s Constitutional politics…

One of the things that’s been puzzling me about the news flows over the last few days. Why, when the NI Life and Times survey has been diligently mapping social and political attitudes over the least 13 years has everyone suddenly got so agitated about social patterns that have been apparent for most of that time.

It’s like no one noticed before. But these figures were available when we first published our study of the future of unionism back in May 2003. We pointed out then that the high figures in favour of the status quo should not lull unionism (which, to be fair, had barely noticed the pronounced trend for acceptance of the Union there was back then), into a false sense of security.

Rather they should use it as a spur to making the Union a better place for all the people of Northern Ireland. In fact, they did not need us (or the NILT) to tell them, the last census demonstrated that continuing to treat Catholics as though they were aliens was a politically foolhardy ‘strategy’. Chris Thornton, then of the Belfast Telegraph:

“The question of a united Ireland is far from settled. But for those who equate unionism simply with the protection of Protestant rights, it is clear that Northern Ireland will never be the same again.”

On the Nationalist side, where the shock to the system has been felt hardest, Liam Clarke has one of the more succinct arguments over why the apparent disparity between the large vote for Sinn Fein and the apparently low vote for a united Ireland (and a low preference amongst Catholics for Unionist parties):

…if more than half of Northern Catholics say they prefer the link with Britain, why do only 1% think of themselves as unionist or consider voting unionist? How can the fact that only 33% aspire to a united Ireland be squared with the fact that 54% consider themselves nationalist? The answer is that for Catholics, nationalism isn’t just, or even mainly, about removing the border. It is about standing up to political unionism within Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin has shown itself to be so good at this that a united Ireland has moved off the agenda.

This great fallacy in much of the response to the survey is in the allusion to its disparity with general polling averages. People vote for any given political party for a whole basket of reasons. Even in the most recent General Election in the Republic it is likely the Sinn Fein surge owed more to its radical critique of the bank bail out than any overall desire for unification.

But Nationalists who are intent on making unification of north and south a priority, should not dispair but take a leaf out of Mr Robinson’s copy book and work out how to make it an attractive option for everyone in Northern Ireland.

The question is, how you do that without losing those people who vote for you for the way you put it up to the other side? Perhaps the more important strategic consideration is increasingly difficulty the public will have in separating the political interests of Sinn Fein and the DUP over more mundane policy issues when they spend so much time behind locked doors hammering out a common public position.

A more strategically articulated narrative on the border could be one way to demonstrate merit in which is capable of appealling to all of Northern Ireland’s citizens. As Paul Murphy pointed out nearly nine years ago, demographics is the Norwegian Blue of constitutional politics in Northern Ireland.

Just ask Alex Salmond, who has successfully (and fundamentally) changed the nature of the Scottish Question….


  • keano10

    I think there does exist a challenge for those of us in favour of Unity to make a much bigger effort at selling it’s merits (particularly) to those within the wider non-Nationalist community. Although, broadly speaking I would lend my support to Sinn Fein, I do think that they have failed to get the message across in any sort of convincing way. Strategically, they need to implement a definitive policy targetting the entire broader non nationalist community. Why should Unionism have the comfort of automatically assuming that every Protestant vote should automatically be cast for pro Union parties. Do they deserve that luxury? What has Unionism actually delivered for the communities of the Lower Newtownards Road and The Village etc?

  • pippakin

    Completely agree. SF must widen its appeal to the broader or the moderate electorate. If they employ PR people its time they started listening to them. The SDLP appear to be in their usual state of disarray but if that changes (new leader?) then SF could find itself with serious competition where it least needs it and the resultant potential split in the electorate could further delay a UI.

  • Dec

    ‘This great fallacy in much of the response to the survey is in the allusion to its disparity with general polling averages.’


    I’d take issue that there is a fallacy here. There’s been a fair bit of cherry-picking on the ‘Unionist’ (for want of a better term) response to the findings. If the responses regarding those who vote for SF (and indeed the DUP) are wrong (which they demonstrably are) then why is every other finding indisputably correct (in their eyes)?

    For all of that, the “nationalist’ response of nothing to see here, is immature. It looks like Martin McGuiness’ status as NI’s most popular politician has come at a price.

  • JR

    One of the major problems is that as northern nationalists we have nothing at all to bargin with. Either on an all Island basis or within Northern Ireland. For example It doesn’t matter at all if Northern Nationalists say, give us a UI and we will change the flag, anthem and drop Irish from the ciriculum. There are 26 counties living very happily without us while they may all have a vague desire for a UI there I can’t see them giving up too much for it.

  • Mick Fealty

    The best analogy I can give is that Yard and a Meter are as near as damnit the same length… but the difference between them gets greater the more multiples you lay down of each…

    I think you can argue some aspects of the face to face interview might/do skew things the wrong way, particularly against SF/DUP.

    But my feeling is that people are over focusing on the potential for error in the methodology but missing what they need to take on board: demographics is not going to deliver what you (as political activists) clearly want…

    Here’s one of my earliest piece of ‘analysis’ on the matter. Points one and two are the most germane to this discussion.

    And here’s a piece from the Atlantic Magazine in 1954, which tracks down the very same ‘fault’ in nationalist thinking when things were less tight demographically than they are now:

    The history of the problem is nearly irrelevant to its solution. Three present factors count: religious differences, the failure of either state to create within its own borders a vigorously healthy society, and the bald fact that the division between North and South aggravates with every passing year.

    Anti-Partitionist propaganda never admits any of these factors. It describes Partition as a horrible injustice perpetrated upon the suffering people of Ireland by a foreign tyranny and maintained solely by the force of British arms and the corruption of British subsidies. According to this picture the Northerners are true Irishmen at heart, who would revert to Irish loyalty upon the instant if the Occupation were lifted. Plainly, then, the unyielding fight must be carried on between Dublin and London for the liberation of Belfast.”

    There is, however, no discernible evidence that the majority in the North, in practice the 66 per cent of the population who are not Roman Catholics, are at all disposed to think of the republic now existing in the Twenty-six-County area as Ireland. Nor, apparently, does any recombination of the two states so far proposed by any Southern politician strike them as a desirable object for their loyalties. They don’t seem very thrilled at the prospect of being rescued by Dublin.”

    Back in the early 50s there was no realistic ‘way out’ for Northern Irish nationalism. Now there is, there are new rules and customs to be learnt and put into practice.

  • Greenflag

    I would’nt make too much of these surveys and certainly not in the present economic climate . Behind the numbers is a fact which has always been there but has been usually glossed over for party political advantage within Northern Ireland regardless of the ‘tribe . And that fact is that there is a ‘northern irish ‘regional identity which will continue to exist whether Northern Ireland remains within the UK or becomes at some point a part of a United Ireland . That Northern Ireland identity crosses the sectarian religious divide and even the constitutional political line on the map .

    How that regional identity can accomodate itself within a larger Irish political context is a question that unionists and nationalists alike in Northern Ireland may have to make at some point . But not just yet and maybe not for a long while if ever . And in that context the response of many NI Catholics/nationalists to the survey seems to me at any rate grounded in the economic hard facts of life at present .

    We forget in the Republic that our ‘nationalism ‘ was a long time in growing and moreover it was ‘cut short’ of it’s probable normal constitutional development by the events of the mid and late 19th century i.e the Great Famine and the rise of the Catholic middle classes in late 19th and early 20th centuries and the relative decline of the ‘landed gentry who succumbed to the changing world of diminishing returns in British /Irish agriculture at the same time .

    Irish constitutional ‘nationalism’s ‘ delayed restart was then
    thwarted by the events of 1912 -the UVF Larne gun runningn and the outbreak of WWI . By the time it was all over i.e 1918 the political world in Ireland and across much of Europe had dramatically changed with aristocracies from Russia to Germany to Austro Hungary collapsing after a thousand years of hegemonic rule .

    So too the troubles of the period now hopefully behind them for ever despite the occassional hiccup as in East Belfast recently Northern Ireland ‘nationalists ‘ have returned to their longer term ‘constitutional ‘ preference . The fact that this position seems closer to that of the old Irish Home Rule party than to the full separation SF model should not surprise anybody . The fact that they still choose to vote SF in the main rather than SDLP just means that these voters are pragmatic much more so than being ‘hypocritical’. They see SF as being more capable of standing up to what is left of any remaining Unionist ‘bogeymen ‘ than the SDLP .

    No nothing surprising at all.

    As to where this will lead in a couple of decades ?

    Just a couple of decades or even less nobody would have foreseen that the DUP and SF would share the spoils of power in NI . I would’nt close any doors on possible political futures for Northern Ireland or even the Republic given the current economic uncertainties on both sides of the border and even more important across the world’s economies .


  • Mick Fealty
  • keano10

    I actually do have a number of issues with the validity of the Survey, but leaving that to one side for a moment, I think we also have to try and possibly imagine the circumstances in which any proposed Border Poll or Referendum would be conducted.

    Be in no doubt. Any such poll would ultimately be played out to the lowest common denominator. I cannot even begin to imagine the simmering raw tensions that the build up to such a poll would create.

    Never mind any Socio-economic arguments that might exist on Day One of campaigning. Never mind the well reasoned arguments appealing for votes from the ‘opposite’ communities. Make no mistake, such a poll would descend very, very quickly into mass rallies on either side. The Orange Order heavily involved in mobilising Unionist support. Equally mass rallies on The Republican side with all the emotive history of The Hunger Strikers and the generations before used to mobilise as much support as possible.

    Goodness only knows how the dissident elements on either side would exploit it all.

    For these reasons, as much as any I actually believe that the vote for Unity on any proposed voting day, would be much higher than this Survey or any other polls would indicate. Let us not forget where we live here. Any proposed Border Poll would be played out amid maximum emotion and with the minimum of reasoned argument.

  • OneNI

    Oh dear Keano you appear to be suggesting that in the ‘heat’ of a referendum all Catholics would ‘revert’ to their ‘inner nationalist’. No evidence that the oposite wont be the case – when faced with harsh economic realities people opt to stick with the status quo.
    Mick’s article of 1954 states support for the Union as 66% – there is nothing to suggest this figure has changed – the ancestoral religious history of that 66% might have changed but not the reality.
    Pippakin ‘further delay’ ?
    Neither demographics nor economic reality support the prospect of a UI.

  • pippakin


    At the moment no they don’t but in time they will.

    Based on current emotions and tribal ‘education’ Keano10 is right a referendum would result in major problems, but if the peace holds and SF use their brains then the young will grow in peace and their decision will be based on their own experiences, not that of their parents and grandparents. I don’t believe being part of the UK is in the long term interest of the north. PropRep would give a unionist block vote enormous power in a UI.

  • keano10

    One NI,

    I suggested no such thing so it might be an idea to read my post properly the next time.

    I firstly stated that I disagree with the findings of the survey which bear little or no little relevance to any electoral results in recent history.

    I personally think that the (approx) 26% or so who vote for Sinn Fein at the moment are a certainty to vote for Unity in any Border Poll. I am speaking in the REAL world here, One NI.

    No one would be “reverting” to anything. They would simply be maintaining and expressing their current political identity and aspiration.

    Now I do accept that when we go into SDLP ‘territory’ that the picture becomes a little more confused. I could not begin to estimate what percentage of their normal 15-16% would vote for Unity.

    I would say one thing though. Everyone knows the demographics and everyone knows what the overall outcome would be based on current preferences. I do feel however that many ‘floating’ Nationalist/SDLP type voters may still be tempted to cast an ‘X’ beside Unity because it would still be a means of recording whatever Nationalism they have, even though they know that the overall outcome would actually be maintenance of the Union.

    In real terms, I think the scale of the Unity vote might surprise a lot of people.

  • John Ó Néill

    There are two methodological issues here: in terms of a united Ireland project looking beyond demographics – a sustainable long term solution has to include attracting enough cross community support to undermine any claims to a pro-union majority and/or London crossing the psychological barrier of proactively pushing it forward (for what it’s worth, I think I’ve pointed out before that there may be traction in pointing up the annual multi-billion subvention provided by London as a potential weak link in the unionist link).

    The second is the fundamental (and inescapable) methodological problem with NILT. All the media around the political elements of it clearly have an expectation that even as a sample we are being asked to sit it on top of actual data to act as the filter through which we can view electoral results here. Yet. I’ve not seen a substantive case made anywhere to support the suspension of whole election results as a guide to political opinion, in favour of a fractional sample such as NILT (for some reason the image of indelible ink on fingers comes to mind here). In some respects, politics is merely a control sample here (since we can calibrate against electoral data), so there is an equally problematic relationship where NILT is cited in policy papers on social issues. It may even be the only significant opinion survey on some thematic areas, yet it’s only available metric for measuring performance (i.e. political opinions as expressed to NILT relative to election results) suggest it is out by factors beyond the normal statistical measures such as standard deviation. Nor, superficially, would it seem likely that correcting a matrix of responses by factoring for ‘known’ political opinion would really work either since there may be no meaningful correlation between political and other societal attitudes. Whether the problem is one of a number of issues isn’t clear (e.g. is it purely a sample location/population issue or relates to the question/response style or a broader societal issue with surveys or the interpretation of such results). But there is a clear ideological fixation with the more palatable (to some) political results produced by NILT than there is in dealing with actual results of the elections. I derided this a form of pertpetual civic adolescence the other day and I’ve not really been persuaded to change my mind – focussing on the political results of NILT seems to merely point up that it is compromised. Not reflecting on that is a shorthand way of revealing the extent to which ideological mother-and-apple-pie plays much better with much of the mainstream media than reality.

  • john

    Can I just say even Alex Kane “champion of unionism” isnt taking the NILT poll seriously so why are so many bloggers getting so worked up about the findings


  • Mick Fealty

    Oh, I think you will find he is John. He’s just not taking the same literalist view of it that some unionists have in the past.

  • The Norwegian Blue (of Norn Iron politics) is not quite so rare.
    Indeed rather like the Red Kite, there is at least one breeding pair.
    The male (or perhaps female…..who really knows) has green white and orange (as well as Blue) plumage and believes that Demographics will result in demographic change leading to a specific electoral change.
    The female (or male?) has red, white and blue plumage and bird watchers have observed a certain ritualistic dance every time a Belfast Telegraoh survey says something they like (twice a year on average).

    Myself……and I know something of bird breeding by the way…….I think they are incompatible and sterile…….mules or hybrids.
    I wouldnt waste my money on a pair.

  • The shinners and SDLP both pay only lip service to what in manifestos by both parties, UI is an indispensible pillar of their political ethos. In practice, this place has been so reformed by them that by the time such an outcome is demographically on the cards, it won’t even be needed for their voters. Ironic indeed. .

  • FuturePhysicist

    madraj55, where has the SDLP paid lip service to their commitment to environmental policy? Where has Sinn Féin paid lip service to their commitments to culture, agriculture and education?

  • FuturePhysicit. I was referring only to the parties UI policies, not the other areas of their manifestos. I doubt the UI issue even came up on the doorsteps with either SDLP or SF. in the recent election. I mean, Bobbuy Sands 30th anniversary was on polling day itself and I’d be surprised if he got a look in during the 6 week campaign.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    I actually agree with Keano10 on this. I work in the research business (though not so much on the political polling side) and my instinct on this is that the figures do not represent blocks of support unionists could rely on if it came to a border poll. I’m not questioning the results as such – they are what they are – but we forget sometimes poll data is one bit of evidence only. On issues like this which are not critical and/or urgent right now, you can get a lot of what is broadly called “soft opinion” – views expressed without particular commitment which can be very vulnerable to swings when it comes to the crunch. (Am I mixing enough metaphors there?!). As Keano10 points out, context is hugely important and may influence “cultural nationalists” considerably in how they vote.

    Here’s the context now: NI settling into consensus politics for the foreseeable future, there is a much improved situation in terms of nationalist role in NI and any chance of a border poll looks, from relative community size demographics, 20 years off at the minimum, maybe a lot longer. And the context when a poll happens: a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland, an overwhelming sense of expectation within that community that this is a historical moment for them (though a sense of the two peoples in Ireland actually coming together would be notably absent – we can expect the opposite in fact).

    Who knows how people will react in that scenario, but I’d hypothesise this would be a time of rallying to the flag on both sides. Of course many people abhor this, but the shared identities we have developed so far are weak compared to the cultural and historical depths of our community identities. This is not to say it’s a good thing, just a fact of life. I do hope this changes but suspect the odds are against it.

    But the rise of those with no affiliation is really interesting and I am speculating here as to how they might act. All I’m saying for sure is, the views in this poll are themselves speculative in nature, in response to an interesting but necessarily speculative question and should be taken as such. Asking people about – or simply observing – actual current behaviour is always more telling.

  • “But the rise of those with no affiliation is really interesting….”
    MU… Surely that should be ‘…those declaring no affiliation’
    They might just decide that this is no business of anyone but themselves. This happens more and more in census returns show a refusal to answer the religion question, rendering the censduis useless for demographic assessment in NI.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    True, there is a rise of people thinking, ‘mind your own business’ on that question; but the numbers declaring no affiliation are such that you would expect at least some of these may have quite a firmly non-aligned position. And this may stay robust (probably not voting?) in a border poll scenario. As far as I can make out, this group is fed more or less equally by both communities and it would be surprising if they swung strongly either way.

    My earlier point about “soft opinion” was not to denigrate them at all, but more about a penumbra of people beyond that, who adopt a refusnik stance in the NILT poll but may be less so when it comes to the crunch.

    But yes, you’re right about the Census too- which is frustrating for those of us interested in tracking changes of opinion over time! Interpretation can only be as good as the data going in.

  • FuturePhysicist

    I think one good reason why many young people won’t be declaring British or Irish identity is because they’ve conceded to migration from the North Sea Islands.

    Frankly, when the government’s cronies are trying to devalue their degrees and apprenticeships while overpaying for stupid advice you simply can’t blame them. e.g. Monetary Intelligence.

  • lamhdearg

    when are the cencus results due?.

  • It took nearly two years for the religious breakdown figures to be released last time, I think in the run up to xmas ’03. Other returns may have been published earlier.

  • Mick Fealty

    December 02, and it was delayed from July/August I think.

  • lamhdearg

    so vis a vis the cencus released date, no official date set?.

  • That’s right, Mick. I remember it was thought the delay was to get beyond the marching season before publishing, making folk think it was going to be bad news for unionists but the margins turned out wider than the nats parties were clearly hoping for.