Nearly two decades of sectarian politics have produced increasing indifference to politics, which is progress of a kind. Age, education and income are now the great dividing lines.

The Guardian’s Henry McDonald  reports an advance of the findings of a  complex opinion survey carried out by Social Market Research Belfast for four universities and coordinated by a team including Professor Peter Shirlow, now at Liverpool.  In common with the NI Life and Times opinion  surveys the poll confirms a much more complex state of public opinion than a straight standoff between unionist and nationalist or a  hardening of attitudes between them.  A huge amount of political agnosticism is common.  The more important divisions in opinion are  now those of education, income and age.

On social attitudes in particular, the survey reports more liberal opinions  to gay marriage and abortion among the people than among the politicians, Sinn Fein being the major exception.

My overall impression  from the survey reports so far  is that the political parties are operating in a bubble but are able to do so because half or more than half of the public are comparative “ don’t knows “ on many of the crunch issues the parties hold dear or could blow up in their faces . And it is  those who have stronger and more conservative views, and older people who are more likely to vote. On the hand, public opinion is likely to be fairly fluid when no clear leadership is given from politicians.  There is much more each party could do to reach out. Rather than giving such priority to competing for a diminishing  core vote, the UUP and SDLP  may be missing  more than a trick or two.

The fluidity of opinion is marked in attitudes to the Assembly, now on the brink of collapse which public opinion appears not to justify.

While only 15.6% take a close interest in politics, the lowest score ever, in an apparent contradiction 66% strongly support the Assembly and about the same number support power sharing. While this is high it compares unfavourably with a similar question in 2002, which found 88% in support.

63.7% agreed/strongly agreed that that it is necessary for political stability that the DUP and Sinn Fein provide the First and Deputy First Ministers

Just under 45% agree there will be lasting peace in Northern Ireland. But the survey as I understand does not not cover degrees of militant opinion against which to measure this – on the face of it –  worrying  result.

Support for the PSNI was almost 67%, while an similar figure (65%) backed the power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland, which at present is in peril due to allegations that the Provisional IRA still exists and is still killing on the streets of Belfast.

The survey shows that a majority of people support the principle of consent on Northern Ireland’s continued membership of the UK. Around 65% agreed or strongly agreed with the assertion that Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK so long as a majority in the region wished to do so.

Only one in five believed there would be a united Ireland within the next 20 years

A total of 65.3% of the 18-29 age bracket wanted gay marriage laws introduced, the survey found.

Northern Ireland is also unique within the UK as it is the only region where abortion is illegal in all but a few exceptional circumstances. The largest share of voters surveyed in the poll – 44.3% – supported legalising abortion, with a small but significant number undecided.

No doubt there will be a lot more to chew over when the survey is published in full.

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  • mickfealty

    Can I use the term ‘rotten borough’? I would though also emphasise, that this is the problem de jour for all spaces which rely on representative democracy as a system for choosing their government.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Yeah representative democracy is a problem, heavens forbid a troublesome person from a working class background and ultranationalist tendencies who live, work and pay taxes here should have any vote or stake here over people who’ve overcome these problems by coming from a middle class upbringing, moving to an English middle class silo and ignoring troublesome people from a working class backgrounds and ultranationalist tendencies that live over there.

    Age, income and education are big diving lines everywhere.

    Why are middle class, middle aged and educated people from outside Northern Ireland surprised not everyone in Northern Ireland is middle class, middle age and educated?

  • Redstar

    I think he’s totally kidding himself if he believes the old dividing lines are no longer as important

  • Zeno

    I’m pretty sure Mick isn’t calling for Nationalist or Working Class voting rights to be abolished.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Nope, just that working class people should get less attention than the middle class minority.

  • Zeno

    I think it depends where you live and how much money you have. The people in the leafy suburbs really don’t give a monkeys.

  • Zeno

    I think you have completely misunderstood his comment.

  • Redstar

    Very very true

  • Kevin Breslin

    The opinion that a small sample opinion poll trumps an election in terms of determining the will of the people is nothing but middle class elitism and intellectual snobbery.

    The NILT survey is a propaganda vehicle for middle class people to see what they want to see and keep the divisions it wants to keep.

    If a surveyor came from a “rotten borough” it’d be interesting to see what bias in selection would exist then.

  • Zeno

    “The NILT survey is a propaganda vehicle for middle class people to see what they want to see and keep the divisions it wants to keep”

    Freedom for Tooting!

  • Kevin Breslin

    What about Bell and Anderson’s “sectarian golf club users”

  • Zeno

    I haven’t read it but my statement was a generalisation. Sectarianism exists on all levels but much less so in mixed well off areas. I know because I’ve lived in both.

  • Brian Walker

    redstar Nobody is saying they don’t matter. The survey is still partly based on the usual divide, as you we’ll see from the full report

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well the journalist seems to think there was only two decades of sectarian politics.

    And also “indifference” to politics is a good thing.

    Because let’s face it, peace-walls, gun violence and economic stagnation didn’t happen during direct rule.

    The “British” Ministers would’ve put a stop to all that.

  • Kevin Breslin

    The Women’s coalition in their short existence knocked on more doors in South Belfast in one election cycle than the entirety of the survey groups in the whole of Northern Ireland throughout the entire period post-GFA devolved power.

    Politicians have to deal with individuals not statistics, and to be honest I wouldn’t trust these pollster statisticans to know what a skew or a kurtosis means.

  • Brian Walker

    No inconsistency here. For ” income” read “class”. There are no peace walls above Holywood Arches, Malone Road etc., now peopled by a growing Catholic bourgeoisie. (Finaghy may be a different matter)..

  • Kevin Breslin

    We’re a victim of 3 schools of voter apathy just like everyone else-Contentment, Resentment and Lament.

    Tribal politics should be seen different from tribal voting…

    People in Liverpool will tribal vote Labour and not Tory, People in Welsh speaking areas are more likely to vote Plaid Cymru. People in East Belfast will tribal vote for a Unionist over a Nationalist, and vice versa for West Belfast.

    The problem isn’t tribal voting, the problem is tribal politics … and there’s a difference.

    In Belguim people might vote for a Flemish politician in Flanders or a Walloon politician in Wallonia, that is tribal voting but they still vote for politicians who put the type of Belguim, Wallonia or Flanders they want to see to the people, through political measures.

    And it’s not the DUP’s fault and Sinn Féin’s fault that this is the case. Voters set the agenda not parties.

    I’m not beyond thinking that there are members of these parties that care about “bread and butter politics”.

    Ask our media what their opinion is on the environment, health, industry, economics, communities, rural affairs etc. and they just simply don’t care!

    Flags, Parades, the Past … they are all over it.
    They draw their life-force from it, and are passionate about little else.

    They complain about politicians being tribal, but I don’t think our media (bar some exceptions like Newton Emerton and Eammon McCann) are actually politically educated.

    They are far more interested in characters like Gerry Adams, Sammy Wilson and Jim Allister, or lost personalities such as John Hume, David Ervine and Enoch Powell.

  • Kevin Breslin

    This isn’t confined to tabloids or newspaper, you’d be hard pressed to find any political debate or radio or television.

    In fact there’s probably such a general malaise here, you’d struggle to find local bloggers who had specialist interests in each of the nine executive functions.

    If you want to hear about the health service … look at this blog by a doctor, nurse or administrator

    policing and justice issues … here’s a former police officer or solicitor

    economics, science, environment, finance … here’s an academic or a professional in these fields.

    communities, welfare … here’s a social worker or a community worker at the coalface, even a benefit claimant.

    rural affairs, infrastructure, … how are we going to deal with these challenges

    Undoubtably these people exist, but no one is really finding them.

    Maybe our politicians and journalists need to buy the odd Farming Life magazine or Business Eye, and step a bit outside their comfort zones.

  • Zeno

    What forms your opinions then? Polls are not perfect but over 99% of them probably are correct.

  • Kevin Breslin

    It’s the whole culture involved from the amateur commentators from the Belfast and often English based people who want data that fits or leans towards their own personal or preferred politics.

    If these pollsters feel they are 99% right about our electorate, they wouldn’t be complaining about a silent majority of non-voters not being heard, they’d have a moral obligation to sue the electoral commission for fraudulently allowing the results to turn out so badly different from the will of the people, because there’s no statistical reason for such a high variation.

  • Zeno

    “they’d have a moral obligation to sue the electoral commission ”

    I’ve no idea what you are talking about. Sue the electoral commission…. jesus!

  • Kevin Breslin

    It’s a hyperbolic statement, but the large discrepancy between the general public and politicians is an aberration. We get what we vote for, and on a bottom line basis.

    I somehow doubt that only 15% of people taking a political survey are interested in politics in any regards, 85% might even be lying to themselves. We don’t have 15% turnouts do we?

    It’s a dumb question to even ask, are the ones who shout rude words telling the surveyor where to go put down in the statistics?

    How many results that the survey people didn’t want to read were dumped in bins? How many leading questions were asked?

  • Zeno

    How many people don’t want to believe the Polls when it goes against their own desired outcome?

  • Kevin Breslin

    I believe polls are a poor democratic substitute for an election or referendum. At the end of the day the people surveyed got under two thousand voters, that’s the same number of individuals in South Belfast voting for UKIP.

    There have been polls that went for my desired outcome but were completely unreflective of electoral results, I criticize their methodology too.

    These surveys probably have a bit more credibility, but generally they are geographically centralised to Belfast and its hinterlands, and adhere to no formalised standards or practices.

    Taking aside the sample size, some of the questions are poor even though they are carried out by an academic institution.

    Do you take a close interest in politics? For example.

    Against what benchmark are we to judge someone’s personal definition of a “close interest”?

  • eamoncorbett

    Well said Kevin, the author obviously didnt know anything about the period 1922-1969.

  • chrisjones2

    …highly redolent of politicians being bought …..and therefore all the more appropriate

  • Gingray

    Not when it comes to politics, you are completely and utterly wrong. The gross failure of UK polling is under review1:

    The only election that was called correctly in the UK between 2010 and 2015 was Wales – Scottish election underestimated the snp, referendum overestimated yes. Labour leader and deputy polling had David and Alan not Harriet and ed. In London Boris didn’t have a landslide. In Northern Ireland Alliance and uup under performed against polling while nationalism over performed.

    Polling is at its lowest ebb since 1992, with major concerns that rather than representing opinion they are used to shape it, often in error.

    It’s not unique to the UK or Ireland, but currently a trend worldwide.

  • Reader

    If you have a problem with the methodology, fair enough. If you worry about e.g. shy Tories or shy Shinners spoiling the results, fair enough.
    But there’s nothing wrong with the sample sizes.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Still very much a “two nations” solution, Brian.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I think the sampling methodology may be a bigger problem than the sample size.