A bit more complexity in Northern Ireland: the rise of the ‘Neithers’

In last month’s blog I was complaining about the simplistic views of many people in the Republic on the complexity of demographic change in Northern Ireland. Too many of them insist on holding to the ill-informed belief that when Northern Catholics outnumber Northern Protestants, we will move rapidly towards a Border Poll leading to Irish unity (mistakenly equating being Catholic with being Nationalist). This month I am going to add to that complexity.

I have been reading an academic article by the superb Brexit researcher, Dr Katy Hayward, and her Queen’s University Belfast colleague, Dr Cathal McManus, on what they call the ‘Neithers’: those people in the North who do not feel either Unionist or Nationalist.¹ Their research into the findings of the 2017 Northern Ireland Life and Times (NILT) survey, conducted annually by Queen’s University and the University of Ulster, shows in that year 45% of those surveyed did not identify as being part of one of the traditional political blocks in the North. In the comparable 2018 survey this had risen to 50%.

Think of it: half of a representative sample of people in the North told this authoritative opinion poll they did not consider themselves either Unionist or Nationalist! That seems to fly in the face of all received knowledge about the ‘tribal’ politics of a region which often seems trapped in immutable sectarian blocks represented by the parties of (formerly) armed republicanism and reactionary unionism.

So who are these ‘Neithers’? According to Hayward and McManus: “The ‘typical’ person identifying as Neither is more likely than either Unionists or Nationalists to be young, female, of both British and Irish identity, to have lived outside Northern Ireland, to have some qualification (especially at the highest levels), to have gone to a mixed school, to be in paid employment and to have a high income.” In other words, they appear to be the North’s more educated and middle class people; 61% of them are women.

Looking in detail at these people who “conscientiously say that have neither Unionist nor Nationalist identities, reveals above all else, the complexity of Northern Ireland society and the inadequacy of the ‘two communities’ thesis,” the researchers conclude. It is notable that the largest category for national identity among the ‘Neithers’ is “equally British and Irish.” Similarly, devolution within the United Kingdom is the favoured constitutional option for ‘Neithers’, generally three times more so than Irish reunification.

Does this mean the non-sectarian Alliance Party’s time has come? Alliance leader Naomi Long’s unprecedented 18.5% first preference vote in the recent European elections might suggest its time is at least beginning. But Hayward and McManus warn that the explanation for the rise of the ‘Neithers’ may lie elsewhere. For it is not only in Northern Ireland when political institutions do not appear to people to be reflective of the social and economic reality of their lives, that political apathy sets in. This may be the case in the North, with its cycle of endlessly suspended institutions, failed government interventions, repetitive ‘agreements’ that run into the sand, and corruption and impropriety by local politicians. Hayward and McManus believe the ‘Neithers’ are “not turning away from politics entirely, but merely [showing] a frustration with the current state of the political system in Northern Ireland.”

However the statistical picture is even more complicated. Firstly, despite what some poorly informed commentators might assume, there is a trend since 1998 for Catholics to increasingly identify as ‘Neither’. “The data from 2017 indicate that almost a half of Catholics now identify as Neither, compared with just under one in every three Protestants.”

Another assumption is that younger people are most likely to say ‘a plague on both your houses’. However the data also shows that “Neithers predominate among the middle aged. The age group 45-54 constitutes a larger portion of support for Neither than it does for either unionist or nationalist designation.”

Another striking NILT finding is that between 2017 and 2018 the percentage of Protestants identifying themselves as ‘Neither’ leapt from 31% to 42%. In contrast, the proportion of ‘Neithers’ among Catholics and those declaring themselves to have no religion barely changed. Does this mean that since Brexit Protestants are becoming disillusioned with unionism? A Nationalist with rose-tinted glasses (or tunnel vision) might think so. The Southern media tend to seize on such figures to come to this conclusion.

But wait a minute. The NI Ireland Life and Times survey also shows that between 2016 and 2018 the proportion of Protestants who considered themselves ‘British not Irish’ grew from 41% to 53%. This appears to contradict hearsay evidence that the chaos over Brexit is making some Protestants doubt the UK union, and thus feel less British. Could it be rather that while many Northern Protestants feel more British than ever, they feel less traditionally unionist because of the traditionalist DUP’s hard line over both Brexit and liberal social issues such as marriage equality and abortion?

Of course, nothing is ever simple when it comes to people’s responses to opinion polls. Survey data may be an accurate representation of what people say in response to a particular question, but what they actually do when faced with an electoral or referendum ballot paper can be very different. After the inaccurate predictions of the pollsters in the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum and US presidential election, opinion polls have to be taken with a tonne of salt.

However if they serve to make nationalists think twice about Sinn Fein’s headlong drive towards unity as soon as possible, they will serve a purpose. Perhaps even supporters of that party are having second thoughts about the wisdom of this. I was at a seminar recently when a young Northern woman who introduced herself as “a Republican and an activist” expressed doubts about how an effective health service would work in a united Ireland, given the contrast between the almost dysfunctional HSE in the Republic and the much fairer and more efficient NHS (even if it is being cut back) in the North.

Speaking of Sinn Fein, I fear that the inter-party talks at Stormont are doomed once Boris Johnson steps into 10 Downing Street. He has pledged to take Britain out of the EU by 31st October if he does not get the Irish backstop removed from the Withdrawal Agreement – which the EU have made clear won’t happen. That will mean the Irish border will become the external frontier of the EU, a true ‘hard border’ enclosing the European Single Market. So are Sinn Fein going to go back into government in Belfast in order to implement what one Northern business acquaintance has called “the second partition of Ireland”? I very much doubt it.

¹ Katy Hayward and Cathal McManus, ‘Neither/Nor: The rejection of Unionist and Nationalist identities in post-Agreement Northern Ireland’, Capital & Class, 1-17, 2018


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