In my previous post (here), I described the rise of the non-religious in N. Ireland, showing that that there are now three main blocs as defined on a religious basis:
And showed how a gradual trend has recently increased:
I suggested previously that the rise of the non-religious was paralleled by support for the Alliance party.
I’d like to look further into this, again using raw data from the Northern Ireland Life and Times Surveys (here). I entered their data into Excel which then produced the graphs.
Can my initial thoughts be substantiated?
Which political party do the non-religious prefer? The NILT Survey asked, “Which of these political parties do you feel closest to?” They tabulated the results for the DUP, UUP, SF, SDLP, and Alliance, and also Other and None. The Green Party (6%) was first separately included in 2020.
This very busy diagram shows that None was preferred over all individual parties until after 2019, when it was replaced by Alliance.
To simplify this, I grouped the Unionist parties together and the Nationalist parties together:
There were similar if erratic preferences for Unionist, Nationalist, and None over the years, with (very) roughly equal shares; after 2018 a preference for None was replaced by one for Alliance.
If we look at the breakdown of preferences by religion we find that Catholics prefer Nationalist parties:
And that Protestants prefer Unionist parties:
There is little crossover of preferences, few Catholics prefer Unionist parties, few Protestants prefer Nationalist parties, and these choices are fairly stable. None of this is surprising. But note the change from None to Alliance after 2018 for both Catholics and Protestants.
If we look at the non-religious we find:
A rather erratic spread of choices between Unionist, Nationalist, and Alliance, though with None clearly predominating though declining from the 2014 Survey, and being replaced then by Alliance from 2019.
Respondents were asked in 2019 and 2020, “Do you see yourself as part of the Protestant community, Catholic community, or neither?” The answers overall were:
Unsurprisingly, most Catholics felt part of the Catholic community:
And most Protestants felt part of the Protestant community:
While those professing No Religion didn’t feel themselves part of either community:
In the 2020 Survey, participants were asked, “Thinking back to the last general election — that is the one in December 2019 — do you remember which party you voted for, or perhaps you didn’t vote in that election?” These are the results:
There are two main findings from these data. Firstly, the division between Unionists and Nationalists is confirmed, and Unionists are largely Protestants and Nationalists are largely Catholics. These aren’t new findings, but confirm that this polarisation continues.
Secondly, we see the emergence of a third group, people who are not religious and do not see themselves as members of either the Catholic or Protestant communities. This group is now almost as large as those identifying as Catholic. The non-religious did not feel particularly close to either Unionist or Nationalist parties in the past, preferring None as their choice. Recently, the Alliance party has replaced None as their preference. The non-religious are atheists or agnostics, and secularists.
Secularism, as I described previously, “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 policymaking. Secularism is not a synonym for atheism, but the two often go together.
It’s often said that “politics is economics” though in N. Ireland it’s been more like “politics is religion” — a person’s political viewpoint being deeply influenced by their religious belief. The DUP was founded by a fundamentalist protestant clergyman to reflect his religious views into his politics. The party has maintained this theological perspective, particularly in relation to social issues. The other Unionist parties and the Nationalist parties have ameliorated any such theological input over the years. The Alliance party is both non-sectarian and secular. The Green party is similarly non-religious and secular but is a minor player here at present.
What does all this mean for the future of politics here? Are the major parties beginning to react significantly to the arrival on the political scene of a third grouping that has a very different way of thinking, one that largely repudiates these parties’ long-established policies? Is this recently developing trend, away from the previous orientation of a religiously rooted political determinism, likely to continue to grow? Can we now begin to expect a major advance in the fortunes of the political normalisation implicit in supporting the Alliance party?
My thanks to SeaánUiNeill for his critique of previous drafts of this post.
Robert Campbell is a retired surgeon.