Social attitudes may be changing but the constitutional question eclipses everything else

Posted By: December 02, 2018

Alex Kane. Irish News. Belfast.Saturday, November 30, 2018 

The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (NILT), jointly run by Queen’s and the University of Ulster, celebrated its 20th anniversary this week.

It has been a very useful barometer of public opinion since the Good Friday Agreement, with almost 90,000 adults, young people and children asked for their opinion on a range of subjects. For example, in 1998 around 50 percent of respondents thought it was not at all or only sometimes wrong to have an abortion if there was a strong chance of a serious defect in the baby. But by 2016, over 80 percent thought the law should definitely or probably allow abortion where a fetus had a fatal abnormality.

In 1998, a majority (almost 60 percent) thought that same-sex sexual relations were always wrong. By 2013 that figure had fallen to 27 percent. And in 2013, the last time the question was asked, almost 60 percent of respondents supported same-sex marriage.

These figures are broadly in line with other surveys from other sources over the past 20 years; all of which suggest a substantial sea-change of opinion on what can be described as socio/ethical issues.

There has been a shift, too, in how we see the relations between the two main, traditional communities here – with data going back to 1989 (the Northern Ireland Social Attitudes survey). Thirty years ago only about a fifth of respondents believed that community relations had changed for the better in the previous five years. In 2017, 49 percent believed that relations were better than they had been in the previous five years; yet that figure was actually 10 percent lower than the figure in 2016. The ongoing toxicity of the relationship between the DUP and Sinn Féin; the absence of an Assembly for almost two years; and the continuing uncertainty surrounding Brexit mean that it’s very likely that the next figure will be considerably lower than 49 percent.

While the NILT survey doesn’t cover election preferences, we can track that elsewhere. In the 1998 Assembly election, the so-called center/moderate parties (SDLP/UUP/Alliance/Greens/PUP/UDP/Cons and a few independents) accounted for around 56 percent, while the so-called extremists (DUP/SF/UKUP) gathered around 40 percent. By 2017 the center was down to 36 percent while the DUP/SF had grown to 56 percent. All of the present anecdotal and polling evidence (and the general election in 2017 is probably a very reliable guide) suggests that the center will probably fall back to 30 percent or lower.

What seems to be happening is that we are becoming increasingly liberal and tolerant on the socio/ethical issues; although the absence of an Assembly, along with the use of the petition of concern from 2007-16, means that there has been practically no legislation to reflect that new-found liberalism. The leaked details from the talks that collapsed in February didn’t have anything definite on reforming the petition of concern, and if that remained the case if the Assembly was rebooted anytime soon, then it’s still unlikely there’d be legislation.

The evidence re. Community relations—even though it has fluctuated since 1989–suggests that a significant minority, approaching 50 percent, is prepared to believe things are getting better. But it doesn’t take much to shake their confidence.

More important, there is scant evidence of many within that significant minority being prepared to go down the path of integrated education, housing, sports or social activity. Put bluntly; they may think relations between the communities are better than they were, but not to the extent that they want to live beside and socialize with the other community.

And, of course, the electoral evidence is particularly depressing. Whatever we hoped might happen after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, hasn’t happened. So we have reverted to type and opted for nurturing the growth of political polar opposites. The SDLP and UUP, who tried to encourage change with the Mike/Colum [Mike Nesbitt, Ulster Unionist Party and Column Eastwood, SDLP] bromance, took a massive electoral hit; down to less than a quarter of Assembly seats between them and no MPs. Both have now shifted towards their primary rivals and it’s likely that they’ll do even worse next time round. I don’t doubt Alliance’s sincerity, and I have a sneaky admiration for Naomi’s feistiness, but they’re going nowhere.

All in all it’s an odd picture. We’re clearly a darn sight more liberal on socio/moral stuff than most of our politicians have realised; which suggests that we have probably more in common than we think. Certainly we’re much more ‘live and let live’ than first impressions might indicate. But–and it’s a whopping but–the constitutional question still predominates and eclipses everything else. We may, deep down, want relations between the communities to get better; and we may want a consensual government in Northern Ireland making the call on health, education etc. But in refusing to live, work, play and educate together; or to vote for anything different, we are still where we were in 1998.