Northern Ireland remains sharply divided over national identity but with no strong desire for Irish unity
The 2012 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (NILT) saw a marked rise in the percentage of people describing their national identity as Irish, rising from just over a quarter (26%) in 2010 to almost a third (32%) in 2012. This is the highest proportion recorded since the survey began in 1989.
The biggest impact appears to have been in the reduction of the proportion of people describing themselves as Northern Irish from a historic high of 29% in 2010 to only 22% in 2012.
Given the census of 2011 recorded a sharp increase in these numbers, the events of 2012 may well have played a significant part here. Broken down by religion, there has been a sharp jump in the percentage of Protestants calling themselves British, from 60% to 68% which is also reflected among those describing themselves as of no religion.
Change has been even more rapid among Catholics. Whereas in 2010, 58% of Catholics described themselves as Irish, this figure had jumped to 68% in 2012. In contrast, the number of Catholics calling themselves Northern Irish fell from 26% to 17% over the same period, the lowest figure in over a decade.
Asked about dual identity, the survey answers appear to reflect a hardening of single identity preferences among both Protestants and Catholics between 2007 and 2012, with evidence of shifting opinion towards the exclusive labels of 'Irish not British' and 'British not Irish' and fewer opting to describe themselves as 'More Irish than British' and 'More British than Irish'.
Paradoxically, however, the number of people describing themselves as equally British and Irish also increased, suggesting devolution and recent events have had a dual effect of polarisation and integration.
However, polarisation over national identity cannot be simply translated into political preference. When asked, 'Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a unionist, a nationalist, or neither?', only 60% of Protestants described themselves as unionist, a fall from 64% in 2010 and from 70% in 2007 and 2008 and the lowest proportion declaring themselves unionist since 1989.
At the same time, the percentage of Catholics calling themselves unionist remains negligible (1%).
Overall, the percentage of unionists in the population (28%), was at its lowest level since 1989 and down from 38% in 2008, due to changing responses by Protestants and those of no religion. While the overall proportion of nationalists has remained largely static since 2007, varying only between 22% and 24%, the survey records that fewer than half of Catholics (49%) describe themselves as nationalist.
By contrast, the proportion of all those surveyed describing themselves as neither nationalist nor unionist rose to 47%, the highest since 1989 – an increase among both Catholics and Protestants.
One striking result confirms expectations of a united Ireland have receded. Respondents thinking it either very likely, or quite likely, has fallen from 29% in 2003 to 15%, while the percentage believing a united Ireland is very unlikely has risen to 41%. The proportion of Catholics expecting Irish unity remains less than among Protestants.
At the same time there was a significant drop in those expressing a positive wish to remain in the UK from 72% to 63% since 2010 and the lowest since devolution in 2007.
Significantly, this decline was not matched by corresponding enthusiasm for a united Ireland. Whereas only 16% (32% of Catholics) indicated a positive preference, the proportion of 'don't knows' jumped from 6% to 14% between 2010 and 2012.
NILT 2012 confirms that the hybrid nature of Northern Ireland as a shared space sharply and persistently divided over questions of national identity is unchanged.
However, this does not translate into a similar division over constitutional status, where there is little evidence of any strong desire for Irish unity at present.
At the same time, there is evidence that events over many years have caused a significant rise in the proportion of people describing themselves as neither nationalist nor unionist among Catholics and Protestants and a measurable alienation from the UK among Catholics.