What does the Rise of the Non-Religious in N Ireland mean for Politics here?

I was casually leafing through the British Humanists’ newsletter recently, when this headline caught my eye:

Northern Ireland’s Non-religious population surges

I read further:

The number of non-religious people is on the rise. The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, released in June, reported that 27% of respondents said they had no religion in 2020. This is a massive increase of seven percent in just one year. The latest surge means that the overall figure has more than doubled in the last decade, with just 12% saying that they belong to no religion in 2009.

What’s most striking is that the non-religious community in Northern Ireland is now larger than any individual denomination other than Catholicism. The data reveals 28% are Catholic, 18% Presbyterian, 11% Anglican, and 12% are from other Christian denominations.

The rest of the article discussed this in relation to Integrated Education, where the balance of pupils is designed to be 40% Catholic, 40% Protestant, and 20% Other.

I wondered if this rise in the non-religious would also be seen in changes in voting preferences.

I looked up the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey [NILTS]. This is the full, complex, breakdown of religion:

Source: NILTS 2020

This level of detail is too great for easy comprehension and analysis. The NILT Survey has run from 1998; for the first time this year, NILTS has aggregated the responses to religion; this makes it much easier to visualise the three major groupings; these aggregated percentages are slightly different to the individual ones above:

Source: Drawn from NILTS data

Only 8% of the non-religious report that they were raised in a non-religious household:

Source: NILTS

In 1998, 1% of respondents were raised in a non-religious household. Today 28% describe themselves as non-religious, while in 1998 only 9% did so.

This is the NILTS data for religion from 1998 to 2020:

Source: Compiled from NILTS

There is a gradual, sustained three-fold rise of No Religion, with falls in Catholicism and Protestantism. The rise of No Religion suggests an active choice by respondents.

What does this mean for N. Ireland, specifically for politics here? Are we gradually becoming more secular as well as non-religious? This is a long-established trend in Britain, and a more recent one in the Republic. Are we moving away from the main Unionist and Nationalist political blocs?

Secularism is “the freedom of belief and the freedom from belief”. In a secular polity there is no special, reserved place for religion, and people are entirely free to follow any faith or none; religious belief and teaching is not the basis for policy making. Secularism is often thought of as being non-religious, but the two are not strictly synonymous.

Sectarianism is the adherence to a sect which is a body of followers of a particular political movement; the adjectives extreme, bigoted, narrow-minded, and religious are often added to the definition.

A tribe is a division in society with people linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, and typically has a recognised leader. Tribalism, the behaviour of such a group, is mostly used in a derogatory sense.

Atheism is the disbelief in, or the denial of, the existence of a god. Agnosticism is the belief that we know nothing of things beyond material phenomena, and that a Creator etc., are unknowable.

Humanism is a rationalist system of thought, attaching prime importance to human rather than divine things.

Eleven political parties have representation, either at Westminster, the Assembly, or in the Councils:

Source: Wikipedia

There are a further 15 registered parties here. The “big 5” in terms of elected representatives are the DUP, SF, SDLP, UUP, and Alliance. To simplify matters, I will concentrate on these parties.

I think of Unionist and Nationalist parties as sectarian (and tribal) and Alliance as non-sectarian — this simplification may be a bit unfair. Unionists, Nationalists, and Others see Alliance as “neutral”. (Other parties, for example, the Greens are non-sectarian, while the TUV are Unionist but the percentages of these and other parties and independents are too small to be meaningfully included. Their omission is not meant to imply denigration, but is an attempt to try to discern overall trends.)

Who do people in NI vote for? Who do the non-religious vote for? Do they vote Alliance as a non-sectarian party? These are the voting share results from the 2019 general election:

Source: Tonge, 2020

It’s not a surprise that Protestants vote for Unionist parties and Catholics vote for Nationalist ones. Those who profess no-religion do not automatically vote Alliance, as might be anticipated. They vote “across the board” though with a slight preference for Alliance. One explanation for this behaviour is that the non-religious are often brought up in a religious household and retain some of these childhood influences even as they turn from religion; it is their “heritage” and they may retain their social outlook and moral and ethical code.

How have the voting patterns changed over the years? This graphic shows a gradual decline for Nationalist and Unionist parties, and a slightly erratic rise for Other (which includes Alliance):

Source: Donaghy, 2019

We can see the changes in Alliance voting shares from in this graphic:

Source: Tonge, 2020

Alliance started off well at its foundation in the 1970s, but its voting share gradually declined to a nadir twenty years ago. It has shown a strong resurgence recently.

Older people are more religious than younger, and more likely to vote. And yet the future of any country is its young people, even if their seniors are in charge. It’s perhaps the feeling that things aren’t changing enough, or going to change, that makes younger people more apathetic — the “why bother voting” syndrome, and likewise the desire that things don’t change that motivates older people to vote.

A generation is conventionally taken to be around 25 to 30 years, or a bit more. It’s the centenary of the foundation of N. Ireland this year, and we can divide that rather broadly (and crudely) into four generations. The first two generations, from 1921 to 1972 were a time of sectarian rule; the third was “the troubles” and the fourth the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement era.

Achieving cultural change is notoriously difficult, often something that takes one or two generations to become properly established. Are we now entering a new period, the post-GFA age? Are we gradually becoming secularised and non-religious? Of course, there are plenty from previous generations who would doubt this, and who simply don’t want this to happen. Yet such change can occur so gradually that it’s almost invisible until it hits us. It does look as if this is the trend here; the obvious question is whether this will continue, or whether we have reached a plateau.

I would like to be hopeful that we are seeing the start of “normal” non-sectarian politics, ones not based on religious belief but on economics and social concerns, but I’m wary of false dawns. I’m very aware that while a correlation can be drawn between the rise of Alliance votes and the rise in the No Religion population, “association is not causation”.

My thanks to SeaanUiNeill for his critique of earlier drafts of this post.


Donaghy, P; 2019; https://sluggerotoole.com/2019/09/02/the-alliance-party-surge-could-spell-trouble-for-the-dup-at-westminster/

NITLS: https://www.ark.ac.uk/nilt/

Tonge J: 2020; Beyond Unionism versus Nationalism: The Rise of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland; https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1467-923X.12857

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_political_parties_in_Northern_Ireland

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