Lead Research Organisation: University of Liverpool
Department Name: Politics


The 2015 Northern Ireland General Election survey will identify the modern basis of party choices and political priorities in the region's distinctive political system. Assuming the passing of legislation currently before the Commons to delay the Northern Ireland Assembly election by one year to 2016, the 2015 Westminster contest is significant in offering the first opportunity for Northern Ireland's voters to express their political preferences, in a non-European election, for four years. The 2015 contest will take place nearly a decade after the St Andrews Agreement, the far-reaching formation of a power-sharing devolved government headed by the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein. This has produced far greater political stability, but sectarian division remains considerable, evidenced by a range of issues such as the maintenance of peace walls, segregated education, a low rate of 'intermarriage' and flags protests. There remains a residual security threat posed by dissident republicans, responsible for over 550 (mainly low level) shooting and bombing incidents since 2007.

Amid the thawing of elite-level political relationships, this 2015 election survey will test how far the acute sectarian divide between Protestant-British Unionists and Catholic-Irish nationalists amongst the electorate (reflected in the closest alignment between religion and voting preference in Europe) has begun to heal. Is there significant evidence of electors moving beyond traditional bloc affiliations in voting patterns? Is this movement, if perceptible, across the divide, or 'halfway', into the non-aligned political centre (e.g. the Alliance or Green Parties)? The survey will also examine the rationale of those who remain within their ethnic blocs and explore the basis of party choice inside those two main blocs. It will also test the extent to which 'British' or 'Irish' identities, the equal legitimacy of which were acknowledged in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, have been supplanted by a common 'Northern Irish' identity, amid the dawning of a shared future.

The election survey will examine voters' views of the performance of the Northern Ireland Executive and appraise the desires of the electorate for further devolution. The transfer of policing and justice powers from Westminster to the Northern Ireland Executive in 2010 has not been followed by more competences and this survey will assess the degree of demand for such. It will assess where voters place the political parties on a range of local and national political issues and will examine how voters rate the performance of parties on each major policy area, including constitutional questions, the economy, education, health, social development and welfare. The survey will reveal which of these issues are determinants of party choice. To what extent have 'bread and butter' non-constitutional issues displaced older constitutional concerns in terms of electoral salience?

Additionally, the study will ascertain the electorate's views and preferences on a range of post-conflict issues, as a truth and reconciliation commission, support for victims, reform of the judicial system and the integration of Northern Ireland society via, e.g. the removal of 'peace walls' and 'mixed' schooling.

Beyond conflict-related and economic issues, the 2015 election survey will evaluate the importance to the electorate - and its views on - various aspects of contested 'social liberalism'. These include abortion rights (the first abortion advisory clinic opened in N. Ireland in 2012, but none of the main parties supports the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act applicable elsewhere in Britain) and gay marriage, which is opposed by the largest party in Northern Ireland, the DUP, and is a subject on which there have been significant inter-party differences.

Based upon a large representative sample , the project will yield a vital survey dataset for use by social scientists, policy-makers and media.

Planned Impact

There will be a wide array of beneficiaries from this research, beyond immediate academic circles. The principal beneficiaries will be:

The Director of the Peace Monitoring Survey of the Community Relations Council, Dr Paul Nolan, has agreed to act as a User Reviewer for this survey proposal and will provide questionnaire input. The Head of the Parades Commission, Peter Osborne, has agreed to act similarly. Thus, Community relations organisations, the voluntary sector and quasi-judicial bodies will all benefit. The study will reveal perceptions of community relations and inter-community thawing/mistrust.

The Northern Ireland Executive: From the study, the Executive will be able to assess the extent of popular support for its decisions. The survey will highlight the views of the electorate on the performance of the Executive; indicate the priorities of the electorate and establish the perceptions of voters on the way in which the Executive is formed under mandatory coalition. In particular, the survey will guide the Executive in its shared future approach, indicating the extent to which the electorate desires the reintegration of Northern Irish society and how and when this can be achieved.

Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly; From the study, Assembly members will be able to assess the demographic basis of their mandates, the extent, or lack of, cross-community transfers in their election and the priorities of voters.

Political parties will benefit from the study in being able to calculate the demographic basis of their support, assess the extent to which their appeal is religiously or socially exclusive, gendered or age dependent, examine the expectations of the electorate and determine future political agendas. Key issues in terms of a the traditional faultline in politics (support for the Union/Irish unity) b) movement towards reconciliation and/or reintegration, e.g. mixed schooling; integrated public housing and c) non-constitutional/conflict based concerns (e.g. educational selection, university fees, health and maternity provision; abortion) will all be covered in the survey, which will inform future decision-making and party stances.

Journalists will benefit greatly from the study in providing an accurate survey of opinion in Northern Ireland which will go beyond the intuitive or descriptive. We expect extensive coverage of the study in the main outlets such as the Irish News, Irish Times, Newsletter and Belfast Telegraph. All of these outlets ran coverage of the 2010 election survey under a similar team. The Political Editors of BBC Northern Ireland and UTV will use the survey findings (there was prominent TV coverage of the 2010 survey results).

The general public will benefit from the study in being able to see where their views lie on a wide range of political questions and by being able to convey priorities to the Executive, Assembly, parties and the voluntary sector via the published results of the study. The public will be able to access the results via the survey website and be able, via the same resource, to offer suggestions in respect of future survey design.

Representatives of each of these groups will benefit directly from the dissemination of the survey findings via various means:

a) at a special post-election conference to be held in Northern Ireland, to which representatives from all the above groups will be invited

b) The investigators all enjoy good contacts with a range of political and voluntary sector organisations in Northern Ireland, having worked in the past with them on various surveys and we will offer private briefings to the main organisations falling into the categories listed above.

c) Copies of the survey results will also be accessible to organisations and the public via the dedicated 2015 Northern Ireland Westminster Election Survey website, which will also facilitate commentary on the design of the study and elicit views on the results.


10 25 50
Description The 2015 General Election Survey Northern Ireland: Key findings


• Communal divisions between unionism and nationalism remain as acute as ever in voting terms. The relationship between the percentage of Protestants in a constituency voting for Unionist parties and Catholics voting for Nationalist parties remains as strong as in previous elections. There has been no electoral thawing in terms of voting across the sectarian divide.

• However there is a very sizeable section of young people (under 30) who eschew unionist or nationalist identifications but do not vote. The young are more secular minded and less interested in traditional identities but are much less likely to vote. There is more broadly an apparent waning of interest in politics. 15.6% had a great deal/quite a lot of interest. This is the lowest ever score since the question was first asked in 1998. The previous worst was 27% in 2007.

• There is overall - and cross-community - support for the principles of power-sharing, backing for legislation to require support from the representatives of both communities and approval for the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. There is overall support for North-South bodies but Unionists are fairly evenly divided. More people believe the parties are cooperating well in the Assembly than no not believe this, but the proposition is not backed by an overall majority. The conclusion that can reasonably be drawn is that the institutions have embedded but a greater degree of cooperation between the parties may be needed.

• Catholics are more likely than Protestants to disagree that there is a lasting peace and to agree that their community is prejudiced against. More also seem to view Protestants as having benefitted more during the peace process. In the period 1998 to 2015 the share of Catholics who believed that nationalists benefited from the 'peace process' has fallen from 16% to 5.3%.

• Catholics are less likely than Protestants to vote on the national question. They are fairly evenly divided over whether the best long-term future for Northern Ireland is within the UK or as part of a united Ireland.

• There are significant differences between Catholics and Protestants on same-sex marriage, the latter much more likely to be in favour.

• There is a clear lack of consensus on some aspects of cultural contestation, notably on the routes of Orange Order parades, but overall the findings are positive in terms of community relations (only 9 per cent think they have worsened in the last five years).

Some key findings

'Moral' issues/Social liberalism/conservatism

Same-sex marriage
• Overall, 52.7% agreed with the legalisation of same-sex compared to 27.8% who did not. However, there were significant differences between the Catholic and Protestant communities and between age groups. 66.5% of Catholics agreed compared to 42.2% Protestants. Almost two thirds (65.3%) of 18-29 year olds, compared to only 25.8% of those aged 60+, agreed with legalisation.
• 55.8% of those with a degree compared to 28.6% with no qualifications supported gay marriage.
• Only 18% of those who did not vote opposed gay marriage

• The population is fairly evenly divided over whether abortion should be legalised. Overall 41.3% of Catholics compared to 47.6% of Protestants agree with a liberalisation of the law.
• As with same-sex marriage, older people are more conservative. 54% of 18-29 year olds agreed compared to 25.2% of those aged 60+.
• Those who vote are more likely to oppose abortion (36.3%) than those who did not vote (20.1%).

Community Relations, Social Issues and the Past
• When asked about relations between Protestants and Catholics and if respondents thought they were better than they were 5 years ago, worse, or about the same now as then 28.4% stated that they were better. Only 9% stated that relations were worse.
• 31.9% stated that there was either a lot or a little prejudice against Catholics. Virtually the same share (31.7%) believed this to be the case regarding Protestants.
• 41.6% of Protestants believed that there was prejudice against their community. In 2003 however, significantly more (67%) Protestants believed there was prejudice against their community.
• More Catholics (56.1%) than Protestants believe that there is prejudice against their community. In 2003, 78% of Catholics believed this to be the case.
• The majority (56.5%) of respondents would not mind if a close relative were to marry someone of a different religion. Figures for Catholics and Protestants were virtually identical.
• 71.8% with a degree would not mind a mixed marriage of a close relative, compared to 50.3% with no qualifications.
• The constituencies less likely to support mixed marriages were Belfast North (31.5%), Foyle (18.6%) and East Londonderry (12.9%).
• 39.3% of those who voted would mind if a close relative married someone of a different religion compared to 24.6% of those who did not vote.
• The majority (56.5%) would not mind if a close relative were to marry someone of a different religion.
• The percentage of Catholics supporting unfettered Orange Order marching rights is negligible (below 1%) whereas it is the largest single category among Protestants at 48%.
• 36.4% of those with no qualifications compared to 15.8% with a degree stated that the Orange Order should be able to parade wherever it wants, without restrictions.
• Nearly the same share of Catholics (48.2%) as Protestants (52.5%) disagreed that immigration brings benefits to Northern Ireland.
• Less than 1 in 5 of respondents believed that immigration was a social and economic good with nearly half (48.1%) disagreeing. Agreement that immigration was good was highest amongst degree-holders (32.5%) and those earning over £30k (18.3%).

Policing and Security
• 66.6% expressed support for the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
• However, Catholics are nearly3 times more likely to oppose the PSNI. 14.5% of Catholics opposed the PSNI compared to 5.5% of Protestants.
• Around 1 in 8 of those aged 18-29 opposed the PSNI.
• Less than half of all respondents (44.3%) agreed that there was a lasting peace.
• Almost 1 in 4 (23.6%) Catholics compared to 1 in 5 Protestants (19.3%) disagreed that there was a lasting peace.
• Respondents were asked to rank their sympathy for on-going violence on a scale of 0-10 where 0 meant no sympathy whatsoever and 10 meant a great deal of sympathy. 71.7% expressed no sympathy whatsoever with 1.8% stating a great deal of sympathy. Those earning £10k or less were less likely to have no sympathy (66.7%) compared to those earning £30k or over. The constituencies in which no sympathy was lowest were; Belfast North 31.5%, Belfast West 58.6%, East Londonderry (50.9) Foyle (43.1%) and Mid-Ulster (22.2). 2.3% of Catholics and 1.5% of Protestants had sympathy. The two age groups with most sympathy were 18-29 (2.1%) year olds and those aged 60+ (2.3%).

The peace and political process
• The largest single category (36.9%) is those who believe that both sides benefited equally.
• 11% believe that unionists benefited much more, compared to 24.9% who believed nationalists did so.
• Nearly half (44.6%) of those who did not vote and 42.9% of 18-29 year olds stated 'don't know' regarding who benefited most.
• In comparison to 1998 data Protestants are now more likely to believe that both sides benefited with fewer believing nationalist benefited (down from 50% to 41%). There has been a rise from 3% to 11% of Protestants believing unionists benefited most.
• In 1998 4% of Catholic believed unionists had benefited. In 2015 the share of Catholics who believed that unionists had benefited had risen to 25%.

Academic transfer tests and selection for schools should stop.
• More agreed (43.4%) than disagreed (27.8%) that transfer tests should stop.
• Only 28.5% of those earning £10k or less supported the transfer test compared to 52.9% earning more than £30k.
• The level of opposition to transfer tests varied little according to community: 43.8% of Catholic and 43.5% of Protestants agreed that it should stop

Constitutional Questions
• 64.9% agreed/strongly agreed to Northern Ireland remaining in the UK for as long as a majority in Northern Ireland want
• Catholics were divided on the principle of consent: (34.2% supported but 34.7% opposed.
• One-third agreed (33.0%) and a slightly higher percentage disagreed (37.7%) that it has become more likely that Northern Ireland will eventually join the Irish Republic.
• More Catholics (23.4%) believed that it has become more likely that Northern Ireland will stay part of the UK than the share of Protestants (15.2%) who believed that Irish unification is more likely.
• However looking to the future many fewer young people (31.7%) compared to those aged 60+ (59.9%) agreed that Northern Ireland will stay part of the UK.
• Around 1 in 5 stated that it was quite/very/fairly likely that there will be a united Ireland in the next 20 years. This is the highest share since NILT 2003 but still around a half lower that 1998 survey.

Assembly cooperation
• 42.6% believed that Unionist and Nationalist parties are cooperating well in the Assembly. Only 33.1% of 18-29 year olds agreed.
• 42.3% of Catholics versus 26.2% of Protestants believed parties were co-operating well.
• 38.8% believed the First and Deputy First Minister are working well together compared to 31.1% who do not believe this.
• 64.3% supported/strongly supported power-sharing.
• Economic plight appears a bigger determinant of support for the current political set-up than communal affiliation. Those earning over £30k (79.4%) were significantly more likely than those earning less than £10k (49.0%) to offer support. Only 6.4% of Catholics and 8.9% of Protestants opposed power-sharing.
• Support for power-sharing is also linked to age. Just under half (49%) of 18-29 year olds supported power-sharing which was lower than all other age categories. Those aged 60+ had the highest share of those supporting power-sharing at 72.7%.
• 63.7% agreed/strongly agreed that that it is necessary for political stability that the DUP and Sinn Fein provide the First and Deputy First Ministers.
• 70.7% of those who voted agreed compared to only 51.7% who did not vote.

Party choice
• Protestants (51.0%) are over twice as likely as Catholics (22.2%) to be motivated to vote by the national question. 54.3% of Catholics claim their primary reason for choosing a candidate is because they like the candidate or s/he works hard for people.
• c15% of 18-29 year olds would vote along constitutional lines. They are more likely (25.2%) to vote for a candidate because they like them. They were also half as likely as those aged 40+ to vote for the Union.
• Respondents were asked which political parties they liked/disliked.
• Catholic dislike: DUP 68%; TUV 66.6%; PUP 66%; UUP 64.4%; UKIP 66.2%.
• Protestant dislike: Sinn Fein; 65.6%; SDLP 50.5%, Alliance 55.5%. 18-29 year olds liked: 30.4% Sinn Fein; 16.8% DUP; 13.2 UUP; 26.5 SDLP; 16% Alliance; 5.2% TUV; 18.1% Greens; 6.2% PUP and 8.4% UKIP.
• Among those aged 18-28 68.7% stated 'not very much' or 'none at all' interest in politics compared to 19.4% of those aged 60+.

Victims and Dealing with the Past
• 56.4% agreed compared to 27.6% who disagreed that all those people who were killed or injured as a result of the conflict should be seen as victims
• Those aged 60+ were most likely to disagree (32.5%).
• 71.6% of Catholics compared to 48.6% of Protestants agreed.
• Protestants have remained firmly aligned to the proposition that only innocent people can be called victims of the Troubles. Only 12.1% of Protestants compared to 37.9% Catholics disagreed that only the innocent should be treated as victims.
• The idea that those who admit to carrying out acts of violence during the Troubles should be given an amnesty remains low in terms of support. Only 14.5% agreed and again there were significant communal differences. 47.2% of Catholics disagreed compared to 71.7% of Protestants.
• However 44.3% of those surveyed supported (compared to 17.7% who disagreed) a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to look at all deeds committed during the Troubles.
Exploitation Route The findings have already been received/discussed by the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council, the Parades Commission, the Rainbow Trust, the main political parties, journalists and other interested organisations. They will inform public policy debate (e.g. the majority shown to be in favour of same-sex marriage; the even divisions over the legalisation of abortion). Other academics will also use the findings to inform research papers/
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy

Description The research findings have been used by a range of societal bodies, including the non-political body perhaps most directly responsible for managing relations between the two communities - the Community Relations Council; plus the Parades Commission, pressure groups; political parties and media organisations. The findings have contributed significantly to the management of inter-communal relations via their use by the above bodies and added considerably to public discourse on how to resolve the remaining areas of sectarian division within Northern Ireland. A major dissemination conference was held at Queen's University Belfast on 19 November 2015 to discuss findings from the study The event was over-subscribed and the research findings yielded considerable public debate across different political and civic sectors. Speakers included the Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council and the Director of the Rainbow Project, representing the LGBT community; senior print and social media journalists; and politicians representing all of the Participants included the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland, the Parades Commission (the quasi-judicial body regulating parades in Northern Ireland) and Coiste (ex-prisoners group). The Community Relations Council Chief Executive was provided with the study data and responded that the survey results were 'very encouraging' in terms of the widespread perceptions that inter-communal relations are improving and the considerable support for power-sharing. However, the need for institutional changes (e.g. a lowering of the legislative bar for cross-community consent) and attitudinal changes among parties- given evidence of that perceptions that political elites could do more to cooperate across the divide. The Rainbow Project welcomed the findings that only a minority (just over one-quarter) of Northern Ireland's population oppose same-sex marriage and has utilised the findings to further press the case for legalisation. The Principal Investigator briefed the Ulster Unionist Party on the survey findings in October 2015. The briefing included data on how party voter attitudes aligned with the rest of the Northern Ireland electorate, data covering a wide range of information from the extent of unionist unity and the utility of electoral pacts, to attitudes to same-sex marriage. The party leader attended the briefing and his Special Advisor has utilised the full dataset, which has has also helped shape questions for a full membership survey being undertaken of the UUP following this project. Findings from the data were also reported to DUP elected representatives and the data was also requested by a Sinn Fein Assembly member. Media coverage has been very extensive and has led to considerable debate on the project findings. Coverage has included the following: The Guardian, 10/09/15 Financial Times (paywall) 19/11/15 News Letter, 07/07/15 07/07/15 31/08/15 BBC News Channel, 19/05/15, 27/10/15, BBC Radio 4 Westminster Hour, 12/04/15, 13/09/15, 25/10/15 BBC Radio 5 Live (various progs), 14/05, 14/08/15, 21/08/15, 26/08/15, 07/10/15, 07/11/15 BBC 1 Northern Ireland, The View, 24/09/15, 29/10/15, 19/11/15, 26/11/15, 10/12/15 BBC 1 Northern Ireland, Newsline, 19/11/15 UTV News, 18/11/15, 09/12/15, 11/04/16 BBC Radio Ulster, 06/06/15, 25/09/15, 28/10/15, 18/11/15, 08/12/15, 09/12/15, 17/12/15 BBC Radio Wales, 14/09/15, 24/09/15, 10/01/17, 22/01/17 Website presence included coverage on Northern Irelan's most important political discussion site, sluggerotoole - see here Belfast Telegraph BBC Radio Wales Cited on BBC 1 Breakfast 08/01/17, 10/01/17, Sky News 10/01/17, BBC 5 Live 10/01/17, UTV View from Stormont, 17/01/17, RTE Morning Ireland 17/01/17
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Security and Diplomacy
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Economic

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
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
Description Conference at Queens University Belfast 19 November 2015 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact This is detailed in the narrative impact, but the most important aspect was the bringing together of a very wide range of groups: political parties, the Parades Commission, the Community Relations Council, the Orange Order, the Rainbow Trust, representatives of Northern Ireland's main media outlets, to discuss and comment upon the research findings
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Media engagement 
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 I conducted several interviews with media organisations to discuss the survey findings.

These included BBC Radio 4 Westminster Hour, BBC Northern Ireland's Newsline and Good Morning Ulster programmes, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Northern Ireland's The View discussion TV programme, BBC Radio 5 Live. I also wrote pieces for the News Letter and Belfast Telegraph and survey findings were reported in The Guardia.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Media engagements citing the 2015 and 2017 Northern Ireland election data 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact More than 500 media appearances citing data from the 2015 and 2017 election studies. Outlets have included the following: BBC1 Breakfast, BBC News Channel, BBC Newsnight, BBC R4 Today, BBC R4 PM, BBC 5 Live, Sky News, BBC World Service, BBC Radio Scotland, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Ulster, BBC Northern Ireland (Newsline and The View); RTE Morning Ireland. BBC Radio 5 Live, Belfast Telegraph, News Letter
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015,2016,2017,2018
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
BBC local radio
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017,2018,2019
Description Panel 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Panel discussing the project
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015