Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: 'Parties need to know views are changing'

Editor's Viewpoint

A new book celebrates 20 years of landmark surveys which have helped formulate discussion of a whole range of social topics. The publication by our two universities draws from the Life and Time Studies of attitudes among adults, teenagers and younger people taken since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

What they show in essence is that far from the stereotypical image of Northern Ireland as a conservative place caught in a time warp, it is a province where attitudes are changing relatively quickly.

Although our policies on abortion and same-sex marriage, for example, may be different from other regions of the UK and from the Republic of Ireland, that is due to conservatism among politicians and their core supporters as much as among the public at large.

But what the surveys also reveal is that social topics often lead to mutually exclusive views being expressed by those questioned. The number of people who fall into the 'don't know' bracket is often relatively small.

Take, for example, attitudes to abortion. In 1998 around half of respondents felt it was not at all or only sometimes wrong to have an abortion if a foetus had a fatal abnormality. By 2016 the percentage believing that the law should definitely or probably allow abortions in such circumstances had risen to 80%.

Research conducted in 2013 - the latest figures available in the surveys - showed that 59% of people supported same-sex marriage.

While these are important benchmark studies and feed constructively into debates on social issues and give an indication of the type of legislation that the public is in favour of, that does not mean that the major political parties will be swayed by them.

Yet they are a firm indication of how public attitudes have changed in a relatively short period of time. Northern Ireland may be regarded as a place apart on these islands, especially given the pace of change in the Republic, but it is not immune to demands for new laws to take account of changing social mores.

Politicians are often sceptical of surveys - unless they come out in favour of their own agenda - but the Life and Times polls have gained enormous respect across the political divide as accurate barometers of public attitudes.

This book should be required reading for the political classes to see how society here is evolving and what the key social issues for the future are.

Belfast Telegraph

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