Fewer NI residents identify as neither unionist nor nationalist

Almost eight in 10 nationalists in North believe united Ireland more likely due to Brexit

There was a significant strengthening of identity among nationalists in Northern Ireland in the run-up to the UK's exit from the EU, according to research published on Wednesday.

The study, Political Attitudes at a Time of Flux, found that more Catholics self-identified as strongly nationalist while close to eight out of 10 nationalists believed a united Ireland was more likely because of Brexit.

But the report also found that almost four in 10 people in Northern Ireland identified as neither unionist nor nationalist. It found that "neither" is still the most preferred of the three categories of political identity in Northern Ireland.

The report, using data from the 2019 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, was conducted by ARK, a joint initiative between Queen's University Belfast and Ulster University.

The 2019 survey relates to a period when there was considerable political upheaval over the push towards the UK exiting the EU and when, particularly through the Ireland’s Future group, there was a growing campaign for a referendum on Irish unity.

The authors of the report, Dr Katy Hayward and Ben Rosher of the school of social sciences, education and social work at Queen's, said that among nationalists there was a "significant strengthening" of identity, with those saying they were "very strong" nationalists up 11 percentage points from 20 per cent in 2018 to 31 per cent last year – "higher than it has ever been". A total of 71 per cent described themselves as very strong or fairly strong nationalists, up 10 points from 2018.

Among unionists 26 per cent said they were very strong in their identity compared with 28 per cent in 2018. In total, 67 per cent identified as very strong or fairly strong in their unionism, up three points from 2018.

Brexit factor

On a united Ireland the authors found that nationalists were “significantly” more in favour (69 per cent compared with 50 per cent in 2018) and, as a result of Brexit, also more expectant of Irish unity (77 per cent compared with 62 per cent in 2018).

Dr Hayward and Mr Rosher said one of the most “striking” findings from the 2018 survey was that half of respondents identified as neither unionist nor nationalist. This had dropped by more than 10 points to 39 per cent identifying as “neither” in 2019.

Seeking to explain this shift the authors said: “At face value the difference seems to have come from a rise in those claiming a unionist identity – up from 26 per cent in 2018 to 33 per cent in 2019. The proportion claiming a nationalist identity has also risen but by a much smaller degree – 21 per cent in 2018 compared with 23 per cent in 2019.”

As to which people fall into the 39 per cent “neither” category, it is generally explained as coming from the roughly 20 per cent of the electorate that votes for the likes of Alliance and the Greens and from the 30-40 per cent who don’t vote, as well as from younger people, and from those unionists and nationalists frustrated by identity politics.

Unusual 2018

The survey found that although the “neither” category was the largest of the three identities, the proportion of Catholics describing themselves as nationalist rose by nine points – 59 per cent, compared with 50 per cent in 2018.

And while 55 per cent of Protestants described themselves as unionist in 2018, this rose to 67 per cent last year.

“Whilst a striking change in the course of a year, 67 per cent is the same figure as in 2017, which suggests that 2018 was an unusual year rather than that we have seen a great move towards unionism,” wrote the authors.

“Notably, whilst there have been shifts towards nationalism and unionism among Catholics and Protestants respectively, there has been little change among those of no religion,” they said. About two-thirds of those with no religion identified as “neither”.

The surveys have been running since 1998. The fieldwork for the survey was conducted from September 2019 to the start of February 2020 with just over 1,200 face-to-face interviews .