Yesterday, the 2009 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey was published on Ark. It reveals a very sharp decline in support for unionism. In response to the question, “Generally speaking, do you consider yourself as a unionist, nationalist or neither?” the answers were:
Unionist 32%, Nationalist 24%, Neither 43%, Other 1%
In comparison with the 2008 survey, Unionism has declined by 5%. Year on year comparisons are not helpful, of course, since they can show false trends. However, when the surveys are linked over a period of years, the bigger picture emerges. I have taken the results for this question in NILT surveys since they began in 1998. To see a larger version of the graphs, please click them.
The clear trends are that unionism is declining; nationalism is static or very slightly declining while non-designation (“neither”) is on the increase. I believe that the Good Friday Agreement, which secures the constitutional future of Northern Ireland to the principle of consent, has contributed to a view, which is growing, that unionism is an irrelevance.
Another trend, which could be linked to political attitudes, is people’s view of their identity. In response to the question “Which of these best describes the way you think of yourself?” the answers were as follows:
British 35%, Irish 32%, Ulster 2%, Northern Irish 27%, Other 4%
It shows Britishness to be in long term decline while Irishness and Northern Irishness show an increase between them. I say this despite the fact that the point at which Northern Irish begins (29%) on this graph is exactly where it ends but I have also considered the breakdown of the age groups (see below)
On Ulster’s Doomed, Horseman, commenting on the recently published Younger Life and Times Survey for 2009, also published by Ark, has observed that there is a weaker attachment to Britishness amongst young Protestants than there is to Irishness amongst young Catholics.
The surveys and their trends will send an urgent signal to unionists that they will not survive unless they are able to re-define themselves. At the very least, these trends are evidence that a merger, desired by many unionists, between the Ulster Unionists and the DUP is not in the interests of those parties.
Meanwhile, they also sit comfortably with the formation of a new non-designated centre-right party which puts Northern Ireland at the heart of its policy-making.