CREIGHTON SarahLife and Times Survey reveals a dangerous and intolerant undercurrent to our society
by Sarah CREIGHTON for Northern Ireland Foundation
11 August 2011

As a Politics undergraduate I was forced to trawl through the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey for an assignment on the SPSS system. Now, a few years after graduating, I can look at the recent results without enduring the pain of trying to understand what a chi square is. 

First of all, some encouraging statistics: 62% of people in Northern Ireland think relations between Catholics and Protestants have improved. 83% of those surveyed would prefer to live in a mixed neighbourhood and 70% of those surveyed would prefer to send their child to a mixed religion school. 31% of those surveyed also feel that the government should put improving relations between the two communities at the top of their priority list.

There are a few things to take into account when looking at the above results: as reported by Liam Clarke in the Belfast Telegraph, ARK (who carries out the survey) has noted that it believes that some of its respondents don’t give accurate answers to the survey questions. Instead of answering how they really feel, some respondents will answer the survey by giving the answer they think the questioner wants to hear. We can question why this is but I feel that the answer is slightly comparable to the ‘Bradley Effect’ in the United States. It is possible that some of those answering the Life and Times survey have been inaccurate in their answers so as not to appear racist or sectarian. We can’t qualify ARK’s views but it is worth taking into account when looking at the above results.

The recent survey results have caused quite a lot of comment in the press, more specifically, the statistic that only 33% of Catholics think the long term strategy for Northern Ireland should be Irish unity. Apparently 46% of Catholic respondents think Northern Ireland should stay within the United Kingdom with a devolved government (6% think Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK under direct rule.) The result without a breakdown puts support for a united Ireland at just 16%.

The results have been portrayed as quite damaging to Sinn Fein and have been welcomed by the Unionist parties. The new figures are a change from the 2006 survey which stated that 56% of Catholics who took part in the survey wanted Northern Ireland to unify with the Republic with only 22% wishing Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK.

The results of the 2010 are surprising but not wholly shocking. It isn’t uncommon to hear those from a Catholic background say that they would prefer Northern Ireland to remain in a union with Britain (or at least I’ve heard a few say so.) It’s also worth noting that the survey was carried out between October and December 2010, just after the collapse of the banks in the Republic of Ireland. One wonders if the results will change once the Irish economy picks up and grows again.

The Life and Times Survey is also noteworthy in other areas: for instance, 3% of respondents want Northern Ireland to be an independent state. 3% is a small and insignificant statistic but still interesting. Who are these strange people that think Northern Ireland could actually function on its own?

Rather depressingly (in my view), 15% of Protestants surveyed stated that they thought that the ‘most important thing for the Assembly to be getting on with’ is strengthening the Union with Britain compared with 9% of Catholics who think the Assembly should be working towards a united Ireland. The union was not the greatest concern for the Protestants surveyed, unemployment and community relations came out on top, but it came before tackling poverty (8%) and sorting out the 11+ deadlock (12%).

It’s good to see that 72% of those in the 18-24 category would like to live in a mixed neighbourhood but it’s quite alarming that 21% of 18-24 year olds would like to live in a neighbourhood of their own religion. Only 9% of those in the 35-44 category would prefer to live in a neighbourhood of their own religion, the statistic is 12% for those in the age group 45-54.

Overall, a majority of people in Northern Ireland would prefer to live in a mixed neighbourhood but it’s interesting (and concerning) that 18-24 year olds, who would not have experienced the level of violence that their elders would have, expressed a greater preference to live in a community of their own religion in comparison to those in the 35-44 category or 45-54.

The Life and Times survey is concerning in another area. The figures for relations with ethnic minorities are quite shocking: 21% of those surveyed stated that they would not willingly accept an Eastern European as a close friend; 23% stated that they would not willingly accept an Eastern European as a relative by marriage. 13% stated that they would not accept a Muslim as a tourist in Northern Ireland. 30% stated that they would not accept a Muslim as resident in their own area, 37% stated that they would not accept a Muslim as a friend and 46% of respondents stated that they wouldn’t accept a Muslim as a relative by marriage!

It says a lot that the 2010 survey actually shows that relations with ethnic minorities are improving. In 2006, 76% (shockingly) stated that they would not accept a Muslim as a close friend; this figure has thankfully dropped. The same is said for relations with Eastern Europeans; in 2006, 70% stated that they would not accept an Eastern European as a close friend. Again, this figure has dropped. I would tentatively suggest that the numbers are falling as people in Northern Ireland get used to newcomers and different cultures. Hopefully the numbers will fall again when the next survey takes place.

The overall image of the Life and Time Survey is that the majority of people in Northern Ireland are tolerant towards ethnic minorities; but, the survey seems to show that underneath this there is a dangerous and intolerant undercurrent to our society.

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