The 2017 Northern Ireland General Election Study

Lead Research Organisation: University of Liverpool
Department Name: Politics

Abstract

The case for support is for a comprehensive study of voting patterns, attitudes and priorities of the electorate at the 2017 Northern Ireland General Election, deploying questionnaire based face-to-face interviews with 1,100 electors - a separate but 'sister' study to the British Election Survey which only covers England, Scotland and Wales. The research will survey opinion in Northern Ireland at a time of considerable political uncertainty/crisis. Since the 2015 general election, there have been very significant developments. Public opinion needs examining to see what Northern Ireland's electorate want in response to a) the possible collapse of the devolved Executive and Assembly, currently not sitting amid stalemate b) the management of Brexit - opposed by a majority in Northern Ireland - and concerns over a 'hard' or 'soft' border, the Common Travel Area and replacement of part of the Good Friday Agreement c) the first-ever loss of a unionist majority, at the recent Assembly election and d) controversies over demands for Irish language and same-sex marriage legislation. The election takes place with Northern Ireland in political crisis. There is a real prospect of a return to direct rule from Westminster. The survey will be based on a representative sample of 1,100 electors from across Northern Ireland.

The study will provide a comprehensive study of how the electorate voted in the 2017 General Election in Northern Ireland - and why electors voted the way they did (or declined to vote). It will analyse the basis of voting behaviour and party choice of the Northern Ireland electorate at the first General Election since the Brexit referendum and amid political crisis resulting in the hiatus in devolved government. Is ethno-religious identity still virtually all? The research will assess whether voters back the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly and to measure support for devolved power-sharing relative to direct rule from Westminster. The study will also analyse attitudes to EU withdrawal. What does the Northern Ireland electorate want regarding a 'hard' or 'soft' border and a common travel area with the Irish Republic and how should the region - a large beneficiary of EU finance - respond to Brexit?

The study will measure the extent to which, if at all, the sectarian/confessional ethno-religious divide in Northern Ireland politics is being breached by votes for candidates from the 'rival' community - and to examine the reasons for communal and cross-community voting.it will examine views on social/moral issues such as abortion rights (still virtually prohibited in Northern Ireland) and same-sex marriage (opposed by the largest party in Northern Ireland, the DUP). The survey will explore the electorate's views on a range of post-conflict issues, as truth and reconciliation commissions, support for victims, reform of the judicial system and integration of Northern Ireland, via, e.g. the removal of 'peace walls'; and 'mixed' schooling.

Planned Impact

Please see 2015 original award.
 
Description There are a range of key findings. Here are a few.
Despite the ongoing political instability, there is considerable support for Northern Ireland's political institutions, amongst the entire population. There are supportive majorities on each question amongst unionists and nationalists.

Table 1. 'The Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive should be restored'
% Total Unionist Nationalist
Strongly agree/agree 70.4 77.9 76.6
Neither/Don't know 24.2 19.2 12.7
Disagree/Strongly disagree 5.4 2.9 10.7


Table 2. Please describe how you feel about the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive
% Total Unionist Nationalist
Strongly support/support 65.5 80.8 66.2
Neither/Don't know 25.6 14.4 19.1
Oppose/Strongly oppose 8.9 4.8 14.7


Table 3. Please tell us how you feel about the requirement that Unionists and Nationalists must both in the Executive sharing power
% Total Unionist Nationalist
Strongly support/support 67.4 75.6 71.6
Neither 25.6 17.7 21.0
Oppose/Strongly oppose 7.0 6.7 7.4


Table 4. Please tell us how you feel about the following: Legislation should require the consent of a majority of unionist AND nationalist members (MLAs) before it can be passed

% Total Unionist Nationalist
Strongly agree/agree 61.2 63.5 69.6
Neither 31.5 26.1 24.0
Disagree/Strongly disagree 6.3 8.4 6.4


2. Restoration of the political institutions can only be achieved via the political will of the DUP and Sinn Féin and resolution of the political issues creating the impasse, notably around an Irish Language Act. Only 27% of the public in Northern Ireland believe that the parties have cooperated well within those institutions. It is not the institutions, however, that are the problem.

3. Changing the political institutions is to offer the wrong remedy given the evidence that the public retains faith in them and their principles. Whilst there is a case to be made for reviewing the threshold for parallel cross-community consent, the public seems content with the current requirement and, regardless, a lowering of the threshold would not resolve any of the current problems. For example, 34% of electors support an Irish Language Act and 28% oppose, with communal differences stark. Abolishing communal designations would be too risky at this stage. Reduced Assembly numbers since the March 2017 election mean that single-party Petitions of Concern are now impossible in any case. Voluntary coalitions excluding either the lead representative of unionism or of nationalism will simply not work.
On social/moral/religious we found significant inter-communal differences on same-sex marriage, with nationalists more in favour, but it should be noted that more DUP voters supported its legalisation than were opposed. Age is the biggest attitudinal determinant: young people are most pro-legalisation. On abortion, the inter-communal differences were less clear.

All electors Unionists DUP voters Nationalists Sinn Féin voters
Pro-legalisation 39% 45% 41% 35% 32%
Anti-legalisation 29% 34% 37% 37% 40%


Same-sex marriage
All electors Unionists DUP voters Nationalists Sinn Féin voters
Pro-legalisation 54% 50% 44% 66% 66%
Anti-legalisation 23% 36% 43% 18% 21%


Other key findings included: few have changed their view on Brexit since the referendum (the majority view Northern Ireland is Remain); there are very strong intercommunal differences between nationalists (overwhelmingly Remain) and unionists (2/3 pro-Leave). There is much uncertainty over its likely impact but nationalists are twice as likely as unionists to see Brexit as producing a hard border. There remains scant evidence of cross-community thawing in terms of voting: the combined percentages of Catholics voting unionist and Protestants voting nationalist were below 2%. The hostility of the respective support bases conditions attitudes towards political leaders. Most nationalists gave the DUP leader the lowest possible rating; unionists reciprocated regarding the Sinn Fein leader. Thus the message of strong support for political institutions and devolved government is juxtaposed with a determination to elect strong ethnic tribune parties. Most young people reject unionist or nationalist labels - and those eschewing such labels are least likely to vote. Only 33% of 18-24 year olds voted. In terms of the Conservative-DUP deal, this is overwhelmingly backed by unionists, regardless of whether they voted DUP or UUP. Nationalists are overwhelmingly opposed.
Exploitation Route We have made recommendations to various parliamentary committees and to political parties. We hope and expect them to be taken forward e.g. in respect of legislation on same-sex marriage and abortion in Northern Ireland, the restoration of devolution, the objections to amnesties, etc.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice

URL https://discover.ukdataservice.ac.uk/catalogue/?sn=8234&type=data%20catalogue
 
Description Extensive evidence to Westminster and EU parliamentary committees, work with political parties, including addressing of party conference, plus numerous media broadcasts and articles (see engagement) and citations of work
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic,Policy & public services

 
Description Evidence on Brexit and Northern Ireland to House of Lords European Union committee
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Impact How Northern Ireland can respond to Brexit
URL https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201719/ldselect/ldeucom/9/906.htm
 
Description Evidence to European Parliament Constitutional Affairs committee on The Impact of Brexit upon Northern Ireland
Geographic Reach Europe 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Impact Solutions to the problem of resolving cross-border issues on the island of Ireland in the context of UK Brexit Evidence on the limits of what the DUP and other parties would accept. Evidence on public opinion in Northern Ireland.
URL http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2017/583116/IPOL_BRI(2017)583116_EN.pdf
 
Description Evidence to House of Commons Defence Committee on truth and reconciliation commissions and amnesties in Northern Ireland
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Impact Provided evidence highlighting the inter-communal differences on attitudes to truth and reconciliation commissions and amnesties in Northern Ireland.
 
Description Evidence to Northern Ireland Affairs Committee
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Impact Nature of direct rule or devolution in Northern Ireland
 
Description Participation in an advisory committee - House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs committee
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
 
Title Northern Ireland 2017 General Election Survey - the database 
Description SPSS database and frequency summaries 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact See public engagement and other sections highlighting evidence to Westminster select committees, European Parliament etc, plus media activity 
URL https://discover.ukdataservice.ac.uk/catalogue/?sn=8234&type=data%20catalogue
 
Description Book launch The Ulster Unionist Party: Country Before Party? 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Launch of book on the Ulster Unionist Party - data from the ESRC 2015 and 2017 Northern Ireland election studies was used for the book. The book was and launch were reported extensively - over four days - in the Belfast Telegraph and News Letter, two of Northern Ireland's 3 daily papers. Coverage included a page-long positive response from the party leader.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/news-analysis/robin-swann-read-my-lips-there-will-be-no-m...
 
Description Conference and seminar presentations 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Range of conference presentations giving findings from the project. The include the American Political Science Association, San Franscisco 2017 (2 papers); Elections, Public Opinion and Parties conference, Nottingham, Sept 2017 (2 papers). Political Studies Association of Ireland conference Dublin, Oct 2017, University of Manchester seminar, Feb 2017, King's College London seminar, Feb 2017.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018
 
Description Newspaper articles 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 29 articles in the Belfast Telegraph between 26/11/17 and 09/02/19

Citations of research in The Guardian, Washington Post, Daily Telegraph, Daily Express, News Letter, La Razon
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018,2019
 
Description Numerous television and media interviews 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Numerous (250+) television and radio broadcasts using data from the 2015 and 2017 Northern Ireland election studies. A full list of items and dates can be provided upon request, but they have included:

BBC 10 o'clock news
BBC Breakfast
Sky News
BBC Radio 4: Today, PM and Westminster Hour
BBC 5 Live; various
RTE radio
BBC1 NW: Sunday Politics
BBC1 Northern Ireland: The View
ABC Australia
Al-Jazeera
BBC local radio
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018,2019
 
Description Oral and Written evidence to Parliamentary Committees - House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee; House of Lords EU Committee; House of Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Presented oral and written evidence to parliamentary committees examining a) attitudes to Brexit in Northern Ireland b) attitudes to the devolved political institutions in Northern Ireland and c) extent of political engagement in Northern Ireland
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018
 
Description Prof Peter Shirlow address to British-Irish Parliamentary Association 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Prof Peter Shirlow addressed the British-Irish Parliamentary group, 17 October 2017 on political and social change in Northern Ireland
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
 
Description Prof Peter Shirlow address to Sinn Féin ard-fheis 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Professor Pete Shirlow addressed the Sinn Féin 2017 ard-fheis on sectarianism and social change
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.facebook.com/sinnfein/videos/1461263170609976/
 
Description Use of data - plus appearance - on BBC Newsnight 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact BBC 2 Newsnight Fri 23 February - used 2017 election data on Northern Ireland social conservatism
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://youtu.be/JgXbAfldnaU
 
Description Various media activities - newspaper articles, tv broadcasts, radio interviews 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Over 100+ media interviews - television and radio plus newspaper pieces - too numerous to list and most of the links are only there for one month. Outlets include BBC Newsnight, R4 Today, PM and Westminster Hour programmes, BBC 5 Live, BBC Northern Ireland The View, Spotlight programmes, BBC Radio Ulster and Foyle, UTV and many others. Newspapers include The Guardian, Independent, Belfast Telegraph. Where links are more permanent, a sample are listed here, e.g. https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/news-analysis/jon-tonge-does-dup-want-to-be-direct-rule-or-devolutionist-unionist-party-36637653.html BBC1 Northern Ireland Spotlight 20 Feb https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/aug/04/northern-irish-unionist-parties-alienating-young-protestants-study

BBC Radio Ulster 21 Feb

BBC Radio Foyle 21 Feb

UTV - View from Stormont 19 Feb


Belfast Telegraph article 15 Feb
BBC Radio Ulster 16 Feb


https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b09sbnk1/spotlight-spotlight-special
From 51 mins

BBC iPlayer - Spotlight - Spotlight Special


UTV View from Stormont from 21 mins

https://www.itv.com/utvprogrammes/view-from-stormont


https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/news-analysis/latest-fiasco-has-proved-that-2006-agreement-was-nothing-of-the-sort-36605818.html


BBC Radio Ulster 16 Feb 2018 on the problems at Stormont

https://www.bbc.co.uk/schedules/p00fzl8w#on-now


BBC Radio Ulster Friday 16 February 2018

https://sluggerotoole.com/2017/12/09/we-are-so-used-to-seeing-northern-ireland-politics-as-a-zero-sum-game-that-its-hard-to-acknowledge-a-political-deal-which-might-benefit-everyone/ http://www.itv.com/news/utv/2018-01-19/funding-announced-for-a-citizens-assembly-in-northern-ireland/
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018