Belfast Telegraph

Flags on lampposts: How do Northern Ireland people feel about them?

By Bill White

LucidTalk was commissioned by the QUB Institute of Irish Studies to undertake research into attitudes on the use of flags.

Our second article on our research project achieved an enormous number of views and has attracted 126 comments to date.

This covered the thorny issue of the possible flying of the Tricolour on council buildings, in certain circumstances.

Our first article had looked at the official flying of flags by district councils and the issue of designated days, and what would and wouldn't be acceptable.

As described previously LucidTalk was commissioned by the QUB Institute of Irish Studies to undertake research into attitudes on the use of flags.

The polling is part of a wider research project into how progress might be made on this vexed issue.

The NI-wide poll targeted a sample of 1,421, which was carefully selected to be demographically representative of NI, and all responses were balanced and weighted to be reflective of age, gender and occupational grouping.

The project used an agreed set of poll questions agreed with the Institute of Irish Studies, and all poll questions were designed to British Polling Council (BPC) professional market research standards, to ensure neutrality and balance.

Here in this third article we review the unofficial flying of flags, or as they are more often called, flags on lampposts. Do they annoy you? Or do you perhaps support this as an expression of culture? Should they be regulated, and if so how?

Our first question on this issue was 'Taken in the round, what is your general feeling on the issue of flags on lamp posts?’ We see from the results in Graph 1 above, that most people in NI find them annoying i.e. 63% say they are annoying/very annoying.

But it is worth noting that nearly 19% are supportive to very supportive. That may be a minority, but at nearly one in five, it is a significant minority.

The second question we asked regarding unofficial flags concerned their regulation: 'Would you agree with a new system of regulation that would make it legal to fly the Union flag, along with other non-paramilitary flags, on lampposts, but in a regulated way?'

Results in Graph 2 show a split of opinion with 50% supporting regulation, and around 40% opposing it.

Comments from the poll participants show that people who oppose regulation do so for several, very different reasons - from those who think it is a right to be able to fly the Union flag anywhere, to those who don't like flags on lampposts but think a system of regulation would be unworkable.

However, as with all polling and market research the really significant patterns emerge from a demographic breakdown of the findings – for example, the differences between Protestants and Catholics on the issue.

It is not surprising that Catholics and nationalists overwhelmingly find the 'unofficial' flying of flags as annoying and would support a system of regulation, so we decided to home in on two key analyses of Protestant responses: (a) What Protestants living in urban areas thought about this issue (e.g. those living in Belfast and Derry city) compared to those living in rural areas - see Graphs 3 and 4 respectively, and (b) What middle class Protestant views were compared to working class Protestants - see Graphs 5 and 6 respectively.

As shown on the graphs, the ABC1 socio-economic groups are the higher income/in-employment sector - basically 'middle class', and the C2DE socio-economic groups are the lower income and/or unemployed sector, i.e. basically 'working class'.

Some key patterns emerge. Protestants in urban areas are more likely to be 'very annoyed' about 'flags on lampposts' than in rural areas - 27% to 20%, probably for the reason that there are more flags on lampposts in urban areas.

Interestingly, and in contrast to this, Protestants in urban areas tend be more 'very supportive' than in rural areas - 17% to 11%.

This shows that among Protestants in urban areas there is a sharper divergence of opinion than in rural areas.

If we break down Protestant responses by social class there is a further divide (Graphs 5 and 6).

Among middle-class Protestants there is much less support for flags than among working-class Protestants: 29% of middle class protestants are 'very annoyed' at the flying of flags on lampposts, as opposed to only 10% of working class protestants, and only 12% of middle class protestants are ‘very supportive’ flags on lamp posts compared with a much larger 25% of their working class co-religionists.

In summary, the highest support for the unofficial flying of flags - that is, flags on lampposts - is among urban working class Protestants, and the highest percentage of 'annoyed' people about the whole issue are urban middle class Protestants.

This shows a crucial split in the Protestant community in the big urban areas, especially Belfast.

Could this be one reason why Alliance seem to be picking up increasing numbers of disgruntled middle-class former unionist voters in urban areas, particularly in the crucial east and south Belfast constituencies?

Our findings are not sufficiently strong to support such a ‘single cause’ explanation, but the pattern is clear, and perhaps unionist politicians aiming to capture the middle-class vote should be aware that flag-waving may not always produce the intended effect.

So that concludes our series of articles on our Flags Poll for the QUB Institute of Irish Studies.

The institute will soon be publishing its own report which will include this polling data, along with information gathered through a wide range of interviews, and a set of conclusions on how the debate on flags can be advanced. We'll let you know when and where this will be available.

Finally this whole project has now been overshadowed by the sad news of the passing of one of its key promoters - Liam Clarke, political editor of the Belfast Telegraph.

Liam always had a keen interest in our polls, and polling in general. He foresaw the public interest that polling could generate (as proven by the large number of readers for our last article), and he was a master at drawing out the key messages behind the poll figures. I only got to really know Liam in the last four to five years, and he was undoubtedly a top journalist, but more importantly a real gentleman. We'll miss him.

This review has been compiled by Bill White, managing director of Belfast polling and market research company LucidTalk, assisted by Dr Paul Nolan, Research Consultant in the Institute of Irish Studies and Dr Dominic Bryan, Director of the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s Belfast. You can follow LucidTalk on Twitter: @LucidTalk.

Project – Background Information

Polling was carried out by Belfast based polling and market research company LucidTalk, over a period from the 24th September 2015 – 28th October 2015. A representative sample of 1,421 NI residents, aged 18+, were interviewed by telephone (approximately 90%), and direct Face-to-Face interview (approximately 10%). The sample of 1,421 was carefully selected to be demographically representative of NI residents within the targeted geographic area of NI. NB The sample of 1,421 is larger than the normal 1,080 sample required for a representative sample of NI opinion. This was to allow representative and balanced samples to be obtained for each of the 11 NI Council areas.

Results presented are weighted, were applicable, to match the Northern Ireland (NI) demographics of gender, age, religion, socio-economic group, region (within NI), population density, and phone status (cellphone only/landline only etc.). This demographic analysis ensured the final results represented an accurate view of current opinion within NI.

All data results produced are accurate to a margin of error of +/-2.6%, at 95% confidence. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting. NB In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

LucidTalk is a member of all recognised professional Polling and Market Research organisations, including the UK Market Research Society (UK-MRS), the British Polling Council (BPC), and ESOMAR (European Society of Market Research organisations). The BPC are the primary UK professional body ensuring professional Polling and Market Research standards. All polling, research, sampling, methodologies used, market research projects and results and reports production are, have been, and will be, carried out to the professional standards laid down by the BPC.

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