Why Northern Ireland is becoming less ‘Northern Irish’, and more divided.

I want to illustrate a few concerning features of the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey (NILTS) data that haven’t yet received media attention, particularly in regard to cross-community contact and the Northern Irish identity.

There are some trends that exist which suggest Northern Ireland is becoming a more divided place, especially for young people economically affected by the recession.

Northern Irish Identity

Since the release of the 2011 census when it was shown that 45% of Catholics and 48% of Protestants prefer this identity label there has been a prevailing notion that Northern Ireland has been becoming steadily more Northern Irish.

There was a certain amount of optimism surrounding this as an alternative to the traditional Irish/British binary which could create an inclusive ‘we’ to replace ‘us’ and ‘them’. The true picture is more complicated.


Proportion of Catholics and Protestants who consider themselves Northern Irish (NILT)

Although there has been a steady increase in Northern Irish identification since 1989 this increase is due to its increasing popularity among Protestants while Catholics remain consistently lukewarm in their support.

Nevertheless, since 2008 both Catholics and Protestants are now less likely to consider themselves Northern Irish (a decline of 8% for Protestants and 9% for Catholics).

If we look at the differences in age groups the picture becomes even more complex. Young Catholics are much less likely to consider themselves Northern Irish than the older generation. Interestingly though the opposite trend exists for Protestants. Why would this be the case?

Social psychological theory on cross-community identities suggest that a new inclusive ‘we’ is created when traditional identities become less salient.

When groups have more contact with equal status and work towards common goals it just doesn’t make much practical sense anymore to talk about differences anymore.

Decline of Cross-Community Contact

Based on this theory one potential reason for the decline in Northern Irish then could be a decline in contact between the communities. Unfortunately this does appear to be the case. One question in the NILTS is “How many of your friends would you say are of the same religion as you?”

Between 2008 and 2012 the proportion of 18-24 year old Catholics who say at least half of their friends are of the same religion increased from 66% to 80%. For young Protestants the figure rose from 61% to 74%.

Similarly, although there is a high degree of willingness among young people towards living in a mixed neighbourhood there is a consistent downward trend. Regardless of political opinions this must be viewed as a dangerous development.


Proportion of 18-24 year olds who say at least half of their friends are of the same religion (NILT).

An analysis of the survey data shows that at least part of this change is due to the increase in youth unemployment.

Unemployment is socially isolating in that stops workplace contact with the traditional out-group as well as denying the social contact associated with having disposable income.

It therefore seems that in a deeply divided society economic problems can make social divergences more pronounced.

‘Northern Irish’ is becoming more British

Other than cross-community contact there are likely other factors involved in these changes, not least of all the influence of political parties. For instance supporters of Unionist parties are now much more likely to consider themselves Northern Irish than previously (see graph).

After the Good Friday Agreement, and particularly since Peter Robinson became leader of the DUP it seems that it is easier for Unionists to consider themselves Northern Irish without denying their Britishness.

At the same time the further in time we move from the ceasefires it seems it is easier for Catholics to call themselves Irish without any implied support for violence or even support for a United Ireland in the near future.

This suggests that in future Northern Irish may become unstable as a truly inclusive identity choice.


Proportion of each party’s supporters who consider themselves Northern Irish since 1998 (NILTS)

What this means for community relations is uncertain. Particularly since national identity and political opinions are not the same thing. For young Catholics for instance there is evidence that they are becoming less nationalist whilst becoming more Irish.

Also, you don’t have to consider yourself Northern Irish to have positive attitudes towards the traditional out-group either, although statistically it helps.

However it does seem that it is overly optimistic to think that the peace process has organically created an inclusive identity that will overtake the traditional binary in the near future.

Inter-group contact is decreasing fast among the young and regardless of political opinion this must be considered a failure of the process.

NB: The 2012 survey was conducted at the start of the flag protests which could arguably have influenced the data.

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  • I think there is a truism that Ireland was too close to Britain to escape undue influence and too far away to be fully integrated.
    Norn Iron is the legacy.
    After all even I support Manchester United and watch Coronation Street.
    Its a dilemna for anthropologists.
    Nationalists have a desire to point out the differences…perhaps “sex up the dossier” to borrow a phrase from another context.
    A “divided” Norn Iron is good for nationalists.
    A homogenous Norn Iron is bad for nationalists. “Northern Irish” (we) is indeed British.
    I had little regard for the Life and Times Survey when it was producing “optimistic” (whatever that means) results.
    So Im still not a big fan when it is producing the kind of result that I like and causing anxiety for LetsGetAlongerists.

    People really need to get away from the notion that one of the three tribes (our own) has a moral superiority over the other two.
    As long as there is Passivity…it doesn’t really matter.

  • Charles_Gould

    The analysis doesn’t match the data: the same proportion of Catholics called themselves N-Irish in 1989 as 2010. There is a single recent year-observation that shows a drop, but no more of a drop than has been seen before in the data (1992 for example).

  • Charles: The graph at the top is for the total population. There is a recent decrease for Catholics, but for young Catholics it is much a much greater fall. I argue that’s at least in part to do with their higher rate of unemployment that the older generation. I would have added another graph for young people only, but there’s probably enough there.

  • BifterGreenthumb

    Interesting article. I don’t think we need to be too pessimistic yet though. It is generally true that in times of economic downturn rightwing, nationalistic ideologies prosper. The recent regression to old tribal identities is a blip caused by the recession. Once the economy starts up again and the older generation of conflict politicians and people personally affected by the troubles die off loyalism and nationalistic republicanism will become completely irrelevant stances held only by rightwing fundamentalists with no grip on reality.

  • megatron

    Once you parse the sample size to different age groups the data becomes too small to provide any meaningful evidence and you basically just have a hypothesis with no evidence.

    Interesting hypothesis nevertheless with a coherent theory underpinning it.

    However, MUCH more data is required before drawing conclusions. It would be a failure of the process if intergroup contact was falling but we just dont know if it is or not

  • Mick Fealty

    Is that really so? Or is it more a case of “your eyesight must be better than mine, Kevin”? http://goo.gl/V8zN3m

    I can see you wanting a fuller set of data, but over a longitudinal span there does seem to be discernable trends. If it was as dissociated as you seem to believe it would surely be up and down like a yo yo.

    That drop at the end could of course be an outlier. But somehow I think not.

  • sean treacy

    Why should the fact that myself and my neighbours and friends consider ourselves Irish be deemed a “concerning feature”

  • BarneyT

    Ian Paisley had no problem calling himself an Irish Man…..:-)

  • DC

    Vote to Eliminate Yourself in decline?

  • babyface finlayson

    sean treacy
    If half the population have a different identity (religion, colour whatever) but none of them are amongst your friends or your neighbours that does not seem like a good recipe to me.
    That doesn’t concern you?

  • Neil

    Depends how you look at it.

    Between 2008 and 2012 the proportion of 18-24 year old Catholics who say at least half of their friends are of the same religion

    How many people here can say that more than half their friends hail from across the fence? It’s understandable given how our society works that most people have greater than 50% of their friends from within their own community.

    Put another way if people picked their friends randomly from society at large around half of people would say at least half of their friends are of the same religion. In our society I’d say those figures are encouraging, 20% out of a probable 50% have more friends from across the fence.

  • Charles_Gould

    I guess it also depends where you live. A Catholic who lives/works up in the Shankill may have mostly protestant friends, a Protestant who lives/works over in Shantallow or may have mainly Catholic friends.

  • sean treacy

    bf ,I didn’t say that ALL my friends and neighbours consider themselves Irish but the fact that many of them do should not be labelled a”concerning feature”.

  • babyface finlayson

    Fair enough, though if you say ‘my friends and neighbours’ it rather implies ‘all’ not ‘some’.
    But I think the concern would be if it is part of a trend indicating increased separation.
    That can hardly be a good thing would you agree?

  • Charles_Gould

    In schooling at least there is a trend away from segregation as more Catholic people are choosing the multi- or non-denominational schools.

  • megatron

    Mick I am not sure if you “If it was as dissociated as you seem to believe” comment is directed at me but I thought I was clear that I didn’t believe either way – I simply think more data is required before drawing conclusions.

    If you look at the friends chart above – do peoples friends really change that quickly – protestants up 20% in 1 year for example? Something funny (probably small sample size variance) is going on.

  • sean treacy

    BF,so it would be “a good thing ” for me to be “northern irish” whether I wanted to be or not!

  • Neil

    If you look at the friends chart above – do peoples friends really change that quickly – protestants up 20% in 1 year for example? Something funny (probably small sample size variance) is going on.

    Zackly. One might even say it’s a perfect demonstration of how idiotic the NILT survey is. When I was a nipper having one Protestant friend would have been fairly unusual. Now we’re supposed to extrapolate something from 18 year olds not having > 50% friends from beyond the fence. Apparently at some point very nearly 40% of young people had more friends from a different religion than from their own. I’m as suspicious of that stat as i am of the one where the SDLP and UUP are doing rather well lately.

  • Charles_Gould

    You said you grew up in a protestant town so how come you didn’t make friends say with people in the neighbouring houses who were protestant?

  • Neil

    people in the neighbouring houses who were protestant?

    There was one kid in the neighbouring houses, and he was in my class at St Mary’s. I did have Protestant friends (and still do, about 40% of my friends, currently to include my chief bestest amigo, so that’s a symptom of division according to NILT), but not until I was in my teens and still at that time fairly unusual.

  • Charles_Gould

    Neil – you make a good point. 50% seems an oddly high threshold. As you say, why would people be expected to have a majority of friends from the “other” community?

  • Neil

    Exactly Charles. 25% would have been a sensible threshold. Taken literally anything less than 51% is seen here as negative, and given the structure of our society that’s a self fulfilling negative prophesy.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Interesting stuff

    “How many people here can say that more than half their friends hail from across the fence?”

    Well, I can only say that now, since I left NI most of my NI friends that I still keep in touch with are one’s I met in Glasgow and they’re mainly ‘themuns’.

    But when I was living there I had one Catholic friend that I met only when I left High School.


    On another note – It could (in my view) be a bad thing if Loyalists took to the Northern Irish identity, that could make it a cold house for everyone else.

    The identity itself would be similar to the Northern Irish football team’s fan base:
    “Come to Windsor Park, EVERYONE is welcome, just sing GSTQ and everything’ll be grand…..”

  • Pete Rock

    Absolute nonsense AG.

    The Northern Ireland fanbase is deeply divided over GTSQ, I go to all home games and some away, the impression I get most fans I know are open to changing the anthem.

    Any thread on the OWC forum would testify to this.

    Ever been to a game?

    Your view of Northern Ireland fans is extremely out of touch.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Pete Rock

    “Absolute nonsense AG.

    The Northern Ireland fanbase is deeply divided over GTSQ, I go to all home games and some away, the impression I get most fans I know are open to changing the anthem.

    Glad to hear it, truly

    “Any thread on the OWC forum would testify to this”

    Cool, I’ll have a look

    “Ever been to a game?”


    “Your view of Northern Ireland fans is extremely out of touch.”

    Well, that’s nice to know, especially as these open minded NI fans were quite quiet (as far as I could discern) when the DUP sent a task force to the IFA ensure that GSTQ will remain as the anthem.

    Like you say, maybe I should prowl around OWC a bit more.

    See you soon maybe?

  • babyface finlayson

    sean treacy
    “BF,so it would be “a good thing ” for me to be “northern irish” whether I wanted to be or not!”
    I honestly have no idea how you got that from what I said.
    I’m simply saying I would prefer if we lived together not separate. Regardless of our beliefs.
    The OP seems to be coming from that angle which is why trends of separateness are seen as cause for concern.
    But perhaps you prefer to keep everyone apart

  • Just to answer questions on the sample size- It’s true that some of sizes get quite small when looking at particular groups. However there’s a lot more stats going on here than I’ve had space to include. When you compare the data for a couple of years before 2008 to a couple after the difference is statistically significant (ie less than 1 in 20 chance of being a random result). I haven’t made any claims here that don’t meet this threshold of significance.

    Even so- let’s imagine the data didn’t meet this 1/20 threshold of certainty- what if it was only a 50%, or less chance that young people are now much more divided that in recent years. Frankly I think that would be enough certainty to want to do something about it, like creating real jobs with a living wage for young people.

  • Floreat Ultonia

    Am Ghobsmacht:

    “these open minded NI fans were quite quiet (as far as I could discern) when the DUP sent a task force to the IFA ensure that GSTQ will remain as the anthem”

    Look a little more closely and you’ll see that NI fans on forums like OWC and ILS (most of whom are broadly unionist, as you’d expect) include many virulent critics of the DUP. Both generally and specifically on the flags and anthems at Windsor, as PR suggests above.

  • Pete Rock

    Yes AG I’ll see you at the back of the Kop, GAWA!!

    For the record it pains me to have to share an anthem with the English, would much prefer our own unique song.

    The Scots have theirs as do the Welsh, why not us?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Floreat and Pete

    Truly delighted to hear this.

    I’m still awaiting ‘verification’ from the OWC administrator.

    “The Scots have theirs as do the Welsh, why not us?”

    Don’t start me…

  • IrelandNorth

    Given that the Nth Ireland Statistics and Research agency’s (NIS&RAs) Household Survey, 2011 reported 40% British only, 25% Irish only and 21% N Irish only, does this not represent a 6% majority in favour of generic Irishness over Britishness. And if Britishness can be identified as pro union, Irishness as pro unity and N Irish as pro-devolution, autonomy or independence, does this not indicate the way to proceed. It’s a shame if we’re pendulating away from the centre ground, since we need to get away from absolutes and embrace commonality. I continue to argue that percentages qualify not that any constitutionality should or should not pertain, but the degree to which they should.

  • Charles_Gould


    The categories are not mutually exclusive. Many of those saying they are British may well see themselves as Irish as well.

  • ConchurMac


    He said “British only”, “Irish only” and “Northern Irish only”. This *would* make the categories mutually exclusive. Those who saw themselves as British and Irish would obviously have ticked both boxes and would not be included in these statistics.

  • Michael Gillespie

    For my book—The Theoretical Solution of the British/Irish Problem ( Amazon)—I carried out research among Catholic and Protestant pupils in schools in Derry into their attitude(feelings)about the old British constitution of N. Ireland in 2013. C f Appendix B of the book
    The research began with 40 (16 year old) Catholic and 40 (16 year old) Protestant pupils writing essays on how they truthfully felt about being British, about being Irish, about the Queen, about President Higgins, about the Union flag, and about the Irish Tricolour.
    Using a statistically valid procedure a feelings scale of 0 to 100 was drawn up from these essays and the scale was responded to by 50 (12 year old) catholic and 50(12 year old) Protestant pupils. The research finding demonstrated that these two groups of pupils were hopelessly polarised in their feelings about the old British Constitution. However the feeling indices of these two sets of pupils about being Irish were skewed towards the favourable part of the scale so the attitude (feelings) of 12 year old pupils in schools in Derry is softer to being Irish than to being British.
    As for being Northern Irish the term did not feature once in the essays written by 80 (16 year old pupils) Catholic and Protestant pupils. So the research in question indicates that the identity Northern Irish is non-existent in the psyche of 16 year old pupils in Derry. The pupils identify as either British or Irish.
    Unionist politicians claim that the constitutional question is now settled. The research in question demonstrates that the constitutional question is far from settled among 12 year old pupils in Derry but remains a burning issue in their psyche. These pupils could easily be set at each other’s throats about the constitution by ruthless politicians just as the adult population have been set at each other’s throats by unscrupulous politicians in the recent past. Only a change to a federal constitution can avoid that.
    Michael Gillespie

  • Am Ghobsmacht


    ‘The old British constitution’?

    What do you mean?

    When I was 16 I never once heard of it let alone discuss it.

    Do you just mean ‘the fact that Northern Ireland exists”?

  • Michael Gillespie

    I appreciate your question. When I use the term ” The old Constitution ” I am using Professor Bogdanor’s of Oxford diatinction between the old and new constitutions.. With the devolution of power by new Labour in the 1990s to Scotland and Wales a new constitution came into existence which made the Kingdom not united.but quasi-federal. Prior to that Scotland and Wales were ruled directly from Westminster and the kingdom was then united.. The Kingdom no longer is, it is now Quasi- Federal heading for full federaltion in the Scottish referendum even though Professor Bogdanor’s distinction hasn’t sunk in, in political circles here or across the water.

    MY book– The Theoretical Solution to the British/Irish Problem ( Amazon)—goes into the old, the new,and afederal constitution in depth. I hope this helps.