Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

New political contenders are already in the rough

By designating NI21 'unionist' at the Assembly, Basil McCrea and John McCallister may have missed a trick, writes Rick Wilford

Rick Wilford Queens.

For those interested in politics, the birth of a new political party is guaranteed to provoke interest. The launch of NI21 rekindles that interest, not least because it coincided exactly with publication of the latest Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, the product of collaborative research by the University of Ulster and Queen's.

The survey provides a compelling portrait of the changed and changing social, cultural and political landscape of Northern Ireland. Its findings are of relevance to all parties, but perhaps especially NI21. What it discloses is a mix of potentially good and bad news for Basil McCrea and John McCallister.

Perhaps least welcome is a hardening of national identity among both Protestants and Catholics. Since 2010, the proportion of Protestants identifying themselves as 'British' has increased by 8%, while the proportion of Catholics labelling themselves 'Irish' jumped by 10%.

Overall, 68% of Protestants attest to a British identity (as do 42% of those with no religious affiliation), while 68% of Catholics assert an Irish identity.

One effect of this growth in mutually exclusive national identities is an across-the-board decline in those choosing to identify themselves as 'Northern Irish'.

This latter finding speaks to the 'NI' part of the new party's name. Overall, 22% of the population describe themselves as Northern Irish – its lowest level for a decade.

The decline is especially evident among Catholics: currently just 17% opt for this label, a drop of 9% since 2010. While not as sharp, the falls among both Protestants and the secular is equally apparent: 24% of the former opt for Northern Irishness, as do 30% of the latter.

Relatedly, it is not clear whether those identifying as Northern Irish form a coherent, or cohesive, target electorate. The largest group in this umbrella category are those with no religious affiliation followed by Protestants, then Catholics.

Constructing a platform that can appeal to all three is something Alliance has sought to achieve over 40 years, with only modest success.

There is, though, potentially good news for the new party. While national identities have strengthened and a regional identity has weakened, there has been a marked change in communal/political identities across both religious communities.

Among Protestants, those identifying as unionists has dropped to 60%, its lowest level since 1989. Among Catholics, the findings are even more startling.

A decade ago, 71% defined themselves as nationalist: today the figure is 49%. In all, 48% of Catholics describe themselves as neither nationalist, nor unionist.

The Catholic population seems to harbour a deep division of political identity. Though the balance is less stark among Protestants, 36% of them disavow each political label, while 71% of those with no religion share this 'a plague on both your houses' attitude. Almost half the population (47%) choose 'Otherness', rather than a unionist, or nationalist, identity.

The tectonic plates of politico-communal identity in Northern Ireland appear to be shifting and here NI21 may have missed a trick.

Given that the 'others' are growing in number within the electorate, then Messrs McCrea and McCallister need to reflect on their decision to designate themselves as 'unionists' at the Assembly.

The electorate also has a right to know what policies each party offers. In NI21's case, it seems we will have to wait for it to reveal its wares.

Parties need the momentum gained from electoral success and it is three years until the next Assembly contest. In the interim, there are the European, district council and Westminster elections, but weak performances at all three will tarnish NI21's prospects in 2016.

There is space for a new party here. But, in opting for the 'unionist' label, which, like its 'nationalist' counterpart, has diminishing appeal, NI21 has handicapped itself from the off.

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