Party support and #NILT’s soft politicised underbelly

And the recurring problem with the NILT Survey (and it hasn’t gone away you know)?

Political party support (%)
DUP/Democratic Unionist Party 17
Sinn Fein 12
Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) 10
Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) 13
Alliance Party 8
Other Party (please specify) 2
None of these 24
Other answer (please specify) 5
Don’t know 8

For comparison, including only those with a political preference from the above, this would translate as follows (NILT figures in bold: electoral figures in brackets are for 2011 Assembly – 2011 Local Government – 2010 Westminister).

DUP: 27.4% (30%-27.2%-25%)
SF: 19.4% (26.9%-24.8%-25.5%)
UUP: 16.1% (13.2%-15.2%-15.2%)
SDLP: 21% (14.2%-15%-16.5%)
Alliance: 12.9% (7.7%-7.4%-6.3%)
Others: 3.2% (7.9%-10.4%-11.5%)

The only control measure available to calibrate NILT is the return for party political support which can be compared to electoral results as shown above. And it continues to fail to match. And the past defence on the basis of NILT (a survey) being accurate and the dismissal of electoral results as tactical is pure exceptionalism. [For slow learners, exceptionalism is where you want to believe that, eg, a survey is more accurate than election results, where people have actually voted, in mapping political preference]

The failure to accurately map political trends also undermines the credibility of other statistics where political sentiment would be influential (e.g. identity, constitutional preference etc). So there is an apparent problem in structure somewhere, either in the form of questions, survey approach, interpretations, or, in understanding how to match it against community attitudes towards responding to such surveys. Given that this has been a recurring and commented upon feature of NILT, it must be presumed that the disparity is somehow acceptable. Remarkably, then, there is a significant difference in the political drift that seems to appear in NILT and other ‘surveys’ as opposed to empirical exercises like censuses or actual elections.

In a region with a significant historical problem with official disinformation, NILT looks suspiciously less like a survey and more like another political tool.

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  • Mick Fealty

    Questions are different, this is ‘party support’ not ‘intention to vote’. And it is not a secret ballot. But I do think it is interesting that their reading on the DUP IS pretty accurate.

    Suggests that the DUP are becoming socially acceptable at a much faster rate than SF. And, perhaps, that some segment of the SF vote is still ‘on loan’ from the SDLP.

  • Alanbrooke

    Why wouldn’t the survey reflect thought better than elections ?

    if the survey is finding that NI is switching off from electoral engagement and normalising like most of Western Europe with lower turnout levels then what does an election actually tell us ? NI turnout has been falling as people catch themselves on to eejits promising sunlit uplands but delivering grey-skied swamps.

    Surely the encouraging thing is a generation growing up who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of their parents and where “yeah whatever” is a more mature politcal repsonse than a body lying in a sheugh.

  • Morpheus

    Key point there Mick – I think nationalists want to vote for the SDLP because their non-violent history makes it more socially acceptable but when it comes to the polling booth it has to be said that SF are taking the lead role so they get the votes.

    The average voter does not hear the SDLP on important issues like parades and ensuring “full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities.”

    Even though nationalists want a UI then don’t see the SDLP doing anything about it – hence why 41% think a UI is very unlikely in the next 20 years.

  • Mick Fealty

    Could not agree more Morpheus. But the fact that a party which has been missing in action since the GFA can still evoke such sympathy (rather than votes) is odd, don’t you think?

  • Dec

    Well, I’m glad that ‘recurring problem’ has been explained away with a whole list of scenarios (above).
    With that said, I’m really looking forward to a future episode of Spotlight in which the team will investigate why less and less of us are feeling Northern Irish.

  • Stewart Finn

    What do we make of the 24% none of the above figure? How does that stack up vs other countries and are they people that wont support any political party or just none of those that exist?

  • Mick Fealty


    It’s not doing it for me. 😉 2001: 2012:

  • Morpheus

    There’s a lot of fear around when it comes to voting Mick – when walking to the booth there’s always that sense that if you don’t back your tribe’s strongest party then the other side will win and we’re straight back to the old days. The way things have been recently then that theory is not without merit.

    It’s something that has to be broken and I am hoping that NI21 can do something about it. I would love to see a SDLP/Alliance/NI21 coalition in Government with the DUP/SF in opposition keeping them on the straight and narrow.

    The numbers in the NILT 2012 show a particularly low level of support in the 18-34 age group for the SDLP – all they will have seen since was the rise of SF. I would go one further and hazard a bet that they couldn’t name 5 SDLP representatives Hell, without Google I would struggle!

    The SDLP are sinking so what option do nationalist voters have but to vote SF.

  • Note the opposite in the vote for Others: always higher than the survey figures. Are we picking up some of the votes for those supporting “none of these”.

  • Blissett

    To try and put the difference between an SF lead of approx 10pts and an SDLP lead of under 2pc, down to turnout as some here are attempting, is truly risible.

  • Dec


    Maybe last year was an aberration then? Didn’t stop those endless references to unicorns though.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Turnout is as good an explanation as any, I’d imagine there are quite a few ‘Stay at home Stoops’. The other explanation may be constituency skewing, if this vote is too urbanised it should favour parties like the SDLP and Alliance overall, which is worrying for Alliance if they are just breaking even.

  • Mick Fealty

    Well, that’s exactly what I said when the Irish Times led with it on their front page last December. It’s a cultural question from the community relations segment in this survey and a complete distraction from politics…

    [See my latest update on tolerance of no united Ireland amongst catholics, that’s where the unicorn ‘myth’ arises from: There’s a fascinating anomaly in there too.]

  • Seamus

    Turnout isn’t as good an explanation as any. A flawed survey is the best explanation. They have someone significantly over sampled SDLP supporters and under sampled SF supporters.

    Say a survey was taken in Britain that said most people want to stay in the EU but puts the level of UKIP and Conservative support at about 2/3 what it actually is. Does anyone think anyone would give that poll any credence whatsoever?

    So why should we do it here?

  • Mick Fealty

    But it’s persistent Seamus, and it’s not a poll. It’s a survey in which someone sits with you face to face and you have ante up. I would say that accounts for a large part of the anomaly.

    People will say what’s socially acceptable. And truth is that social acceptability is a mountain which has been climbed by DUP whilst SF is lagging significantly behind.

  • Dec

    ‘People will say what’s socially acceptable. And truth is that social acceptability is a mountain which has been climbed by DUP whilst SF is lagging significantly behind.’

    I still say catholic/nationalist coyness about putting their heads above parapets is the main factor.

  • @Mick,

    “People will say what’s socially acceptable.”

    If that is true then expect continued shocks as people continue to vote for the ethnic outbidders. This has been the explanation from 1977 to 1999 for the results of Israeli elections as many people said that they planned to vote for Labor or Meretz and then voted for the Likud. It also figured in South African elections in the 1950s and 1960s to disguise the rise of the National Party among English-speaking voters.

    If there is an explanation for the DUP being more socially acceptable among unionists than Sinn Fein is among nationalists, it may be because it has been more honest among adopting the policies of its defeated rival than have the Shinners. The Shinners are still pretending that they blowing people up for parity of esteem all along.

  • Sorry, that should read “about adopting…” and “pretending that they were blowing…”

  • Ruarai

    I think this survey gets less interesting rather than more interesting the more consistently it fails to make sense of election results. But look, all data points are useful to some extent, flaws and all.

    The silly thing is for people to try to elevate this annual data point up, regardless of the flawlessness or otherwise of its data gathering method, to something akin in value and credibility to actual election results.

    Having said that, there’s every reason for blogs to look at the small micro pictures day and daily; blogs are ideally set up for that.

  • Seamus

    People will say what is socially acceptable. I don’t disagree.

    But would you not agree that ends any usefulness of the poll beyond using it as a barometer of what people find socially acceptable. Are people less likely to be in favour of a United Ireland or is it simply not the current chic? Are people defining in the survey one way or another because they think that is what they are supposed to say?

    And if people are concerned about saying they support Sinn Féin what other things are they concerned about saying?

  • Mick Fealty

    I think the survey is useful, but like polls they are only snapshots. They are next to useless for predicting voter behaviour, so some of the criticism on that score is valid.

    But politicians should be eating this stuff. They don’t get that much data, particularly if they are not inside OFMdFM, that tells them voter attitudes on such a range of stuff.

    Even in the US polls only become ‘reliable’ in aggregate (in very large numbers), over time and like spread betting they get closer to the real answer the closer they are taken to the poll.

    For me, the real use here is for policy planning and long term strategy for marrying party values with representing people on matters that are important to them.

    Say what you like about methodology, but it is the best we’ve got…

  • Delphin

    Why should the NILT survey and election results align. Firstly the results represent answers from different groups of people i.e. (a) those who vote and (b)the whole population.
    Secondly the NILT survey may represent what people actually want and a vote in an election may be the best way to keep the other side out.
    It is possibly wiser to analyse the reasons for the differences than to rubbish the NILT survey.

  • ForkHandles

    Personally speaking I only voted once when I was 18 just for the experience. I don’t support any of the parties because I consider them to be a bit embarrassing in their views and I don’t feel any need to vote for them.

    As regards the identity percentages. I am Northern Irish probably first and British or Irish second depending on the circumstances of who I am talking to or where I am voicing such details. If I’m discussing something with people from the UK then obviously I’m British and discussing something with people from other regions of the UK. Maybe I’m with people from the ROI and am discussing something that is a generally Irish thing. I feel equal ownership of anything Irish without having to portray in some way that I feel part of the ROI. That would be daft to most people in the ROI I feel. I really don’t feel any need to try to be included in the ROI identity to still consider myself as an Irish person. I am Irish because I’m from Ireland, the part that is Northern Ireland.
    I live abroad so perhaps these things are easier for us expats! Yes when you are an expat you are an expat from whatever country you are from, in my case the UK so British expat. But it doesn’t stop me being involved in Irish events and so on that are organized by ROI Irish people. Its just not a big deal.

  • Lionel Hutz

    There are going to many problems with individual surveys but a variety of polls suggest that the SDLP vote is not reflected in turnout on the election. Think about the fact that Sinn Fein are so much better at electioneering. The difference is staggering. In fact, the difference between Sinn Fein and all other parties is staggering. WHy is hard to believe that they up their vote?

    I would say that the NILT survey is flawed on this but for the fact that other surveys independently come to the same finding, time and time again

  • roadnottaken

    To suggest that the NILT Survey has any real capability of demonstrating party support (or the intentions of voters in future) is laughable.. Slugger really needs to catch a grip of itself.. finding what you want to see will lead you nowhere.

  • antamadan

    Wow, thank Mick, so the NILT is not annonymous unlike the ballot box. That explains everything (The % supporting unionist parties always is far higher than those supporting nationalist paties and the gap is always enormous compared to elections.) Nationalists in NI historically kept their heads down and pretended they were not Irish except in provo-controlled areas; and I think some habits die hard as long as unionists are in a majority,

  • Reader

    antamadan: That explains everything (The % supporting unionist parties always is far higher than those supporting nationalist paties and the gap is always enormous compared to elections.) Nationalists in NI historically kept their heads down and pretended they were not Irish except in provo-controlled areas; and I think some habits die hard as long as unionists are in a majority,
    It looks like the split between nationalist and unionist parties is accurate, but people are very coy about choosing SF over SDLP, and a bit coy about choosing DUP over UUP.
    You need a new theory.

  • Tochais Síoraí

    If it’s a face to face survey, then that’s its essential weakness. Especially in NI many people will tend to moderate their views when interviewed by someone they don’t know or they may have worked out they’re from the other tribe. ‘Yes, Trevor, I’ll definitely vote for Sinn Fein.’ ‘Now, Sinead, I just can’t decide betwen the TUV and the DUP.’ I don’t think so, somehow.

    If you’re somewhere between SF and the SDLP but usually end up voting SF you’ll tell the interviewer SDLP etc etc. Most people’s public face is a bit more moderate than it actually is.

  • FuturePhysicist

    Turnout is still as good an explanation as any, regardless of what people might try to will it to be otherwise.