Life and Times survey by fjzhangm

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									Political identity and support in Northern Ireland politics 1998 - 2006

Presentation by the Northern Ireland Constituency Council Prepared by Jenny Muir For the Labour Party Commission on Northern Ireland

Labour Party (Northern Ireland Constituency Council) www.labour.ie/northernireland

Political identity and support in Northern Ireland politics 1998 - 2006 Summary   A substantial proportion of people, ranging from 30 – 40 per cent, do not describe themselves as unionist or nationalist. The proportion is increasing slightly over time. Over the same period, when asked which party they support, many people either support no party (between 11 and 26 per cent over the years) or don‟t know (5 – 18 per cent). During the period 1998 – 2006, support for unionist and nationalist parties combined reached a low of 56 per cent in 2006 and never rose above 69 per cent. In elections, the 30 – 40 per cent of the population who do not support the communal parties reduces to a band of generally around 5 – 7 per cent who turn out to vote. There may be many reasons for this and turnout is not unusually low compared with other parts of the UK and with the Irish Republic. We cannot assume that they point exclusively to the possibility of a gap in the electoral „market place‟. However, in 2005, 41 per cent of respondents had a lot of sympathy with the statement from non-voters that „I would have voted if there was a strong nonsectarian party‟. It would be reasonable to conclude that at least some of the missing voters cannot identify a current political party they wish to support. Introduction This paper presents statistics from the annual Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey1 and from election figures, to assess whether a new political party might gain electoral support on the basis that it is neither nationalist nor unionist, following the example of the Green Party and the Alliance Party2. Most of the Life and Times Survey data is drawn from a time series covering 1998 – 2006. The Life and Times Survey figures used in this paper must be treated with some caution, not because of the survey design (representative sample)3 but due to the sensitivity of the questions. It is possible, from anecdotal evidence only, that some people do not answer questions about political affiliation honestly, especially if they support the „extremes‟ (the DUP or Sinn Féin) or if they suspect the interviewer is not from the same community background.

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1. 1.1

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http://www.ark.ac.uk/nilt/ It is acknowledged that the origins of the Alliance Party were in liberal unionism and the New Ulster Movement. Notwithstanding its “east of province” profile, its credentials as a non-aligned party today are substantial, including the first minority ethnic MLA. 3 The Survey‟s 2006 technical note is available at: http://www.ark.ac.uk/nilt/2006/tech06.pdf

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The analysis concentrates on the political identity of respondents and their stated or actual support for political parties, rather than on their ethnic identity.

2. 2.1

Political identity Chart One shows responses to the question „do you think of yourself as a unionist, a nationalist or neither?‟, which has been asked every year from 1998 to 2006. A substantial proportion of people, ranging over the years from 30 – 40 per cent, do not describe themselves as unionist or nationalist. The proportion is increasing slightly over time. The range of the other two main political identities also varies slightly over the years, from 21 to 29 per cent for nationalism and between 35 – 43 per cent for unionism.

Chart One: Political identity, Life and Times Survey 1998 - 2006
100% 90% 80% 70%
% support

2

3

1

3

2

3

2

3

1

33

30

36

35

32

Other/ don't know
35 37 35 40

60% 50% 40% 30% 20% 10% 0% 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006
40 39 43 35 38 38 39 40 36

Neither
25 29 21 27 28 24 23 22 23

Nationalist

Unionist

3.

Political parties supported – in theory and in practice

Support expressed in the Life and Times Survey 3.1 Chart Two is an analysis from the question „which Northern Ireland party would you support?‟, with responses grouped into unionist, nationalist and „third space‟ parties, the latter being mainly Alliance and the Northern Ireland Women‟s Coalition. Although the „third space‟ responses are small, it is striking how many people either support no party (between 11 and 26 per cent over the years) or don‟t know (5 – 18 per cent).

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3.2

The figures are fairly volatile during the period surveyed, although in 2006 the combined „third space‟, no party and don‟t know figures pushed support for the two communal blocs to below 60 per cent for the first time. To turn these figures around, support for unionist and nationalist parties combined varies from a minimum of 56 per cent in 2006 to a maximum of 69 per cent in both 1999 and 2005. (We may speculate that the higher figures were caused by a backlash due to delays in setting up the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1999, and due to general and national elections taking place in 2005.)

Chart Two: Support for political parties, Life & Times Survey 1998 – 2006
100% 10 90% 12 80% 70%
% support

14 13

18

17

9 16

8 23 7

5 26

12 11 10

15

Don't know/ other answer No party

12

14 5 7

19 5

8 6

21 7

60% 50% 40% 30% 20% 10% 0%
38 37 39

29

32

23 29

32

27

26

30 24

'Third space' parties Nationalist/ republican Unionist/ loyalist

31

36

35

37

39

32

1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006

Actual support in elections 3.3 The Life and Times Survey data on party support may be contrasted with actual voting patterns in elections. Table One shows percentage voting figures for Northern Ireland‟s elections since 1997, and also shows that the DUP/ UUP and the SDLP/ Sinn Féin swapped places during this time as the main representatives of their communal blocs. Actual voting trends since 1997 include „third space‟ support varying from 2.3 per cent (1999 EU election) to 10.2 per cent (1997 Westminster election). In other words, the 30 – 40 per cent of the population who do not support the communal parties in the Life and Times Survey has shrunk to a much smaller band of generally around 5 – 7 per cent who turn out to vote.

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3.5

With the exception of elections to the European Parliament, turnout has stabilised at around two-thirds of the electorate4. The NI election turnout for the 2005 general election, at 63 per cent, was the same as Wales and higher than the 61 per cent for both England and Scotland, although NI was the only part of the UK where turnout had fallen since the previous general election5. Turnout in the Irish Republic‟s 2007 general election was 67%. There are many reasons why people don‟t vote and it would be wrong to assume that the figures in Northern Ireland point exclusively to the possibility of a gap in the electoral „market place‟. However, we may at least speculate that some of those who do not identify themselves as unionist or nationalist (Chart One) and do not support the „big four‟ political parties (Chart Two) are absent from the voting figures (Table One) because they cannot identify a political party they wish to support.

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Table One: Percentage support in NI elections 1997 - 2005
1997 LG 15.8 27.9 16.9 20.6 6.6 3.0 6.0 4.0 55% 1997 W 13.6 32.7 16.1 24.1 8.0 2.2 3.0 0.2 67% 1998 A 18.1 21.3 17.6 22.0 6.5 2.7 8.3 3.5 70% 1999 EU 28.4 17.6 17.3 28.1 2.1 0.2 6.3 0.0 58% 2001 LG 21.4 22.9 20.7 19.4 5.1 1.2 3.5 7.0 66% 2001 W 22.5 26.8 21.7 21.0 3.6 1.5 2.5 0.1 68% 2003 A 25.6 22.7 23.5 17.0 3.7 2.1 2.5 3.1 64% 2004 EU 32.0 16.6 26.3 15.9 2.5 6.6 47% 2005 LG 29.6 18.0 23.2 17.4 5.0 1.8 1.1 2.0 64% 2005 W 33.7 17.7 24.4 17.5 3.9 0.9 1.9 64% 2007 A 30.1 14.9 26.2 15.2 5.2 3.0 2.1 3.2 63%

DUP UUP SF SDLP Alliance Other „third space‟ Other unionist or nationalist Independents TURNOUT

Key: LG = local government; W = Westminster; A = Assembly; EU = European Union. Notes: (i) In 1997, the local government and Westminster elections were not held on the same day, hence turnout was different. (ii) 1997 – 2005 elections data from Northern Ireland elections web site: http://www.ark.ac.uk/elections/ ; 2007 and some turnout figures from BBC Northern Ireland election web pages; other turnout figures from the Electoral Commission. (iii) When elections are held under PR, the figure refers to first preference.

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A new system of annual electoral registration was introduced in 2003 and there was initial concern that it was a deterrent for some vulnerable groups, but recent Electoral Commission research reports indicate that the situation appears to have improved. The reports are available at: http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/your-area/registrationresearch.cfm
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http://www.electoralcommission.org.uk/templates/search/document.cfm/13874

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Back to theory – a snapshot from 2005 3.7 In 2005, the Life and Times Survey included a one-off module of questions on Democratic Participation, which contains much interesting and useful information6. For the purposes of this report, one question is particularly relevant:

Q22. Here are some of the things that people said who didn‟t vote in the last Northern Ireland Assembly election in November 2003. Can you tell me how much sympathy you have with these statements – even if you yourself did vote in that election. One of seven statements provided was: „I would have voted if there was a strong non-sectarian party‟. The responses were: A lot of sympathy: A little sympathy: No sympathy: Don‟t know: 41% 29% 25% 5%

4. 4.1

Conclusions The figures in this report raise the possibility that the „third space‟ in Northern Ireland politics, for parties not aligned to unionism or nationalism, is currently under-occupied. Although there may be other reasons why people do not describe themselves as unionist or nationalist, do not support a political party, or don‟t vote in elections, these figures at least point to the possibility of a mismatch between current political options and expressed preferences. The existing „third space‟ parties which have won seats in elections are the Green Party and the Alliance (the Northern Ireland Women‟s Coalition has disbanded). Both have some admirable policies, but neither is a democratic socialist party linked to the trades unions and the Socialist International. The Labour Party should consider whether there is scope to offer Northern Ireland‟s voters a new choice.

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Jenny Muir 6.4.08

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http://www.ark.ac.uk/nilt/results/dempart.html and access to reports at: http://www.ark.ac.uk/nilt/results/dempartres.html

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