Big division across North and South remains national identification

Research shows the socially liberal position has a clear lead over the socially conservative one

How similar are the North and South on economic and social issues, and on political beliefs and ideology more broadly?

The Irish Times/ARINS surveys broached the extent to which citizens are left-wing interventionists or right-wing free marketeers in economics. Respondents were asked to indicate where they stood on a scale of 0-10 where 0 means they strongly believe government “should act” to reduce inequalities in income and wealth and 10 means they strongly believe the government “should not act”.

Two-fifths of the public in the North and the South gave the most left-wing response possible to this question (0), while a further third in both places gave a moderately left-wing response (1-3) . Only one in 10 northerners and southerners indicated a right-wing response that the government should not take action to reduce inequality (7-10). Catholics in the North are somewhat more economically left wing overall (77 per cent) than Protestants (67 per cent).

On social issues our surveys explored two subjects that have been controversial and divisive in the recent past in both the North and South. In both jurisdictions the socially liberal position now has a clear lead over the socially conservative stance .


On same sex marriage and the provision of abortion services the South is somewhat more socially liberal than the North. On same sex marriage, almost three quarters are supportive in the South compared to three fifths in the North. Only one in 10 are opposed in the South, compared with one in six in the North.

Similarly on abortion provision, in the South there are three times as many people who are supportive (60 per cent) as opposed (19 per cent). The balance of opinion is closer in the North – 47 per cent support and 27 per cent oppose.

Catholics and Protestants in the North hold similar views on the issue of abortion provision. But they are quite different on same sex marriage. Almost seven times as many Catholics are supportive as are opposed, whereas slightly more than twice as many Protestants are supportive as opposed.

If Irish reunification occurred, at some stage, these findings suggest that the resulting all-island public would be significantly economically left wing. It would also be socially liberal rather than conservative, but with northerners less socially liberal, and northern Protestants notably less liberal on same sex marriage.

Fianna Fáil and the SDLP voters are similar in their ideological self-descriptions: they are in the middle of the road on both the economic and social dimensions

We can also examine these attitudes broken down by party supporters . Sinn Féin, both North and South, has the most economically left-wing party supporters, while supporters of Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), Fine Gael, and Alliance have the least left-wing voters on economic questions.

By contrast, on same sex marriage and abortion service provision Alliance, Fine Gael and southern Sinn Féin supporters are the most socially liberal while the TUV and DUP are the least liberal.

Taking responses to all three questions into account, some distinct patterns emerge.

Fine Gael and Alliance voters are classical liberals: they are more likely than other parties’ voters to favour non-state intervention on economic and social matters.

This finding is consistent with responses to another question in our surveys. We asked respondents to describe themselves by choosing from a wide range of ideological labels (Table 7). They could choose up to four options. Twenty two per cent of Fine Gael voters describe themselves as “liberal”, compared with 15 per cent of all southern respondents. And a large proportion (36 per cent) of Alliance voters embrace the “liberal” label compared with just 13 per cent of all northerners.

NI poll tuesday

Northern and southern Sinn Féin voters are similar in favouring state intervention in the economy but they are socially liberal. In ideological self-description, 19 per cent of southern Sinn Féin voters are “socialist” compared with 11 per cent of all southerners.

The DUP is distinctly socially conservative on the same sex marriage and abortion provision questions, and 14 per cent of their voters self-describe as “conservative” compared with 5 per cent of northerners overall.

Fianna Fáil and the SDLP voters are similar in their ideological self-descriptions: they are in the middle of the road on both the economic and social dimensions. Fianna Fáil voters are more likely to self-describe as “conservative” (16 per cent) and “Christian Democratic” (16 per cent) than southerners overall (9 per cent and 7 per cent respectively).

Unsurprisingly, the label “unionist” was picked by more than half of DUP, UUP and TUV voters, and the term “loyalist” was picked by approximately three in 10 DUP and TUV voters. While 11 per cent of UUP voters described themselves as “monarchists”, the low percentage overall who identify as monarchists – 3 per cent of all northerners and 7 per cent of Protestants – may suggest that ending any role for the monarchy in a united Ireland would be unlikely to be the most controversial subject.

Sinn Féin voters, North and South, were equally likely to self-describe as “republican” (38 per cent and 36 per cent respectively). The self-definition as “nationalist” was much more likely to be used by SDLP and northern Sinn Féin voters than by southern Sinn Féin voters. Significant proportions of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael voters select “republican” and “nationalist”, so these dispositions are all-island.

Just 1 per cent of northern Catholics identify as “conservative”, compared with 10 per cent of northern Protestants. We can’t say whether the all-island aversion to this self-description is owed to feelings about the UK Conservative party. On the other side of the traditional right-left spectrum, 14 per cent of northern Catholics identify as socialists compared to 3 per cent of Northern Protestants.

Overall, such differences as exist on these polices and political beliefs are within the norms of contemporary European democracies. The big division across the two jurisdictions remains that of national identification, and accompanying cultural preferences. Northern Catholics, however, strongly resemble their southern co-ethnics.