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.

Graph1
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.

Graph2
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.

Graph3
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.

PhD candidate at Queen’s University using political psychology to research why some people identify as ‘Northern Irish’ rather than Irish or British.