Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Belfast Telegraph Poll 2013: Two communities at loggerheads? It's no longer that simple

It has always been easy in Northern Ireland to say what the "vast majority" wants, but it has never been good enough to secure peace or stability.

Sectarian division is still a potent reality but it is weakening, as many of our poll findings show.

For instance, 31% of Protestants, but only 7.5% of Catholics, believe that all councils should fly the Union flag every day.

Religion is still a predictor of opinion but a majority of Protestants might, in the past, have subscribed to this view and it might have found far fewer takers among Catholics.

The Community Relations Council pointed out in a recent report that "Northern Ireland is now a society made up of minorities".

There are no longer just two homogenous religious or ethnic clans, one of whom has a secure or permanent majority.

This is a society which has to be shared if it is to be stable and at peace.

In this poll it is plain for all to see that parades and flag protesters do not have majority support for their actions.

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In the case of parading, 75% of people who expressed an opinion at all believe that either Parades Commission determinations should be obeyed, or that parading should only take place in areas where there is local agreement.

Since those polled were only allowed to choose one out of four options, it is fair to deduce that the vast majority wants parading confined to areas where agreement can be reached.

This is hardly surprising.

Since last December policing contentious parades and protests cost us £3m a month – £28m so far, besides disrupting life for hundreds of thousands of people.

Now we know that most people here seek compromise and agreement.

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So the 75% statistic is a hard message for the protesters on Twaddell Avenue and for the Orange Order as we enter the Haass talks. It tells them that they do not represent majority opinion, or anything like it, and they would be wise to seek accommodation rather than simply insisting on their own way.

Yet that is not the whole story.

If our history shows anything, it is that strongly motivated minorities cannot simply be marginalised or ignored because most people disagree with them.

Many Catholics and nationalists complained of such treatment for much of the history of the State.

That resulted in periodic outbreaks of violence from a minority of the nationalist community and civil disobedience campaigns or protests by a larger group. Such conflicts dominated our history and only ended when estranged nationalists were brought into the political mainstream and given a clear stake in society.

The problem with marginalised unionist and Protestant urban working class communities is not so serious – yet. But there are worrying signs that need to be addressed. We see people circling the wagons and referring to themselves as the PUL (Protestant Unionist Loyalist) community.

They feel that they have lost out in the peace process and seek security in tribal unity.

Yet, as this poll and the recent census show, there is no homogenous PUL community, or certainly not a majority one.

For instance, the census identified 48% of people as Protestant, but only 40% as unionist.

Among Catholics the read-over to Irish nationalism was weaker still, though most who still voted plumped for nationalist parties.

Numerically the census found the "two communities" close to parity. Their relative strengths were 48% Protestant background (meaning that the person either designated as a Protestant or came from a Protestant family) to 45% Catholic background.

This shift coincides with a loss of confidence in the ability of the political institutions to steer our society on a safe course. In the poll, few trust councils to make their own decisions on flag-flying, and the Assembly has been blown a massive raspberry by the adult population which gave it an approval rating of close to -60%.

No government who got such a rating could hope to be re-elected. Yet ours will, because we have no opposition and we exist in a permanent, increasingly fractious coalition. Tomorrow, in our poll coverage, we will see what the non-voters think, but for now it is enough to note that the turnout is falling.

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At the last Assembly election it was just 54.5%, down 15 points since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

It is tempting, in these circumstances, for politicians, particularly unionists who see their once automatic majority slipping away, to drum up tribal feeling rather than offer reassurance or assuage popular fears at election time.

With three years of elections starting in 2014, this is a real worry and, as the flag protests last winter showed, things can easily run out of the control of politicians.

The disaffected PUL community is something under 20% of the population. Finding a way to include these people in the political process by giving them more realistic and obtainable objectives is a major challenge to political leadership.