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Northern Ireland public became more polarised in the run-up to Brexit: research


Katy Hayward

Katy Hayward

Ben Rosher

Ben Rosher


Unionist and nationalist identities became stronger in the run-up to Brexit, according to a major new survey.

The Queen's University-Ulster University joint ARK research project found that 59% of Catholics described themselves as nationalist last year compared to 50% in 2018.

It's the highest number in any Northern Ireland Life and Times (NILT) survey since 2003.

And 71% of those identifying as nationalist described themselves as strongly so compared to 61% in 2018. This number is higher than it has ever been, according to the report's authors.

Two-thirds of Protestants (67%) described themselves as unionist compared to 55% in 2018.

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And two-thirds (67%) of those identifying as unionist described themselves as strongly so - up from 64% in 2018.

However, despite the growth in nationalist sentiment in the Catholic community, the survey did not show any significant increase in support for Irish unity.

Just 22% of people here wanted it as a long-term policy compared to 44% support for devolution within the UK. Direct rule was the least favoured option with just 16% support.


Ben Rosher

Ben Rosher

Ben Rosher

The NILT survey consisted of 1,200 face-to-face interviews across Northern Ireland from September 2019 to February 2020.

Co-authors Dr Katy Hayward and Ben Rosher noted it was not an election study.


Katy Hayward

Katy Hayward

Katy Hayward

"When compared to election results, Sinn Fein supporters are under-represented and Alliance Party supporters are over-represented in our weighted sample and we should bear this in mind in our analysis," they stated.

The survey found that more people saw themselves as 'neither unionist nor nationalist' than identified with either of the two traditions. However at 39%, this was down 10 points from 2018, and the authors reported that it was the lowest number in 15 years.

A third of people (33%) identified as unionist, up from 26% the previous year.

Just under a quarter of people (23%) identified as nationalist, a small rise from 21% in 2018.

The authors said there was little change in the numbers saying they were of no religion. Just under two-thirds (62%) of those saw themselves as neither unionist nor nationalist, with 22% identifying as unionist.

Thirty per cent of people thought a united Ireland was likely in the next 20 years while 46% believed it unlikely. The authors said this represented no shift from 2018.

But nationalists were much more likely to believe Irish unity would be achieved in two decades - 54% compared to 20% of unionists.

Almost two-thirds of unionists (62%) saw a united Ireland as unlikely by 2040 compared to 37% of nationalists.

Nationalist support for Irish unity rose from 50% to 69% in 2019, according to the research.

While 77% of nationalists believe that Brexit has made a united Ireland more likely, only 2% of unionists say it has made them more sympathetic to Irish unity, and just 22% say it has increased the likelihood.

Despite the suspension of devolution for almost three years, the report found it was still the preferred form of government among people here.

Indeed, 42% of people here believed Stormont should have more powers than it currently enjoys and should be "responsible for all decision-making".

A total of 16% supported maintaining the current power-balance with Westminster with London retaining decision-making powers on taxes, benefits, immigration, defence and foreign affairs.

Only one in 10 people said they would like to see Westminster make all the decisions for Northern Ireland.

The report noted that while devolution was popular in all communities, "respondents from a Catholic background are considerably more enthusiastic for giving powers to the devolved institutions".

More than two-thirds of people saw the Good Friday Agreement as remaining "the best basis for governing Northern Ireland".

But Catholics were more likely to say that the Agreement shouldn't be changed - 39% compared to 31% of Protestants.

And Protestants were more likely than Catholics to say that the Agreement was no longer good or that it never has been - 14% compared to 4% of Catholics. Almost exactly the same number of Catholics and Protestants believed that the Agreement needed to "undergo some changes to work better".

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