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20 Years Of Our Lives and Times

11 December 2013

For just over twenty years, major social surveys in Northern Ireland have been monitoring changing attitudes to equality issues and relations between the two main religious communities during periods of conflict, peace-building and devolution.

Today, three of Northern Ireland’s leading social scientists – Ulster's Dr Duncan Morrow, Professor Gillian Robinson and QUB's Lizanne Dowds – will be discussing the long term social and political trends that have been revealed by these surveys as they launch ‘The Long View of Community Relations in Northern Ireland: 1989-2012 ‘ a new report analysing the changing attitudes to equality issues and relations between Northern Ireland’s two main communities.

Overall, the Life and Times survey suggests that progress has been made in improving inter-community relationships; that values in relation to sharing are remarkably constant and that nationality and constitutional issues may now allow for complex rather than simple solutions. However, it also suggests that community relations in Northern Ireland remain extremely fragile and vulnerable to events and political changes.

Among the trends they highlight are:

* There has been an improvement in the underlying ‘climate’ of community relations since 1990. However, perceptions and fears around community relations can be set back or advanced quickly by either political progress or violence on the street. Political events over the past year appear to have resulted in a deterioration in people’s expectations of community relations progress in the future;

* preferences for shared/integrated education, housing, and living have remained stable;

* over 90% of people think workplaces should be shared spaces;

* over 80% would prefer to live in a mixed area;

* over 70% of people express a preference for shared/integrated schooling;

* objections to mixed marriages have reduced in both communities and in all social groups in the past twenty years;

* attitudes to mixing have softened since 1990 and have remained consistent. However, personal attitudes do not of themselves enable change in social behaviour and will require a change in policy if they are to be sustained through the shocks of difficult events;

* young people are particularly vulnerable to a rise in fear and antagonism. Over the past twenty years young people have proved more responsive to changes than adults, both positive and negative in perceptions of community relations, suggesting that the obstacles lie in real fears and the risks which some young people run in relation to violence;

* of particular concern has been the sharp decline in the perceptions and attitudes of young people towards improving community relations in recent years suggesting an increase in anxiety and antagonism in youth culture;

* the evidence of gradual improvement evident in rural communities has not been reproduced in urban areas in recent years. This may suggest both that policy in each context may need to be refined and that issues around interfaces, urban space and cultural disputes require greater attention;

* prejudice against ethnic minorities remains extensive and runs at an unacceptably high level across Northern Ireland. Attitudes among Protestants in urban areas appear to be particularly hostile;

* questions of identity and constitutional preferences are partially malleable, with new and complex results. The most constant evidence is that very few Protestants consider themselves to be Irish while few Catholics describe themselves as British. However, the numbers describing themselves as ‘Northern Irish’ have varied over time, and appear to be affected by changes in political events;

* over 20 years of polling, NISA/NILT surveys have recorded a sharp drop in the numbers of people expressing a political preference for a United Ireland. However, the percentage of people describing their nationality as Irish has remained stable;

* attitudes to community relations, sharing and nationality are shared across economic differences rather than defined by class or income. For example, opposition or resistance to shared neighbourhoods is greatest among those with a strong political, cultural and national identity. Unemployment, lack of education or living in social housing tend to be secondary predictors while having attended a mixed school is often associated with a positive desire for shared neighbourhoods.

On the basis of these findings, the authors argue that the policy priorities to improve attitudes should include:

* Efforts to sustain political agreement, cultural pluralism and community co-operation.
* Development of mechanisms to tackle flashpoints and manage trigger events.
* New policy to address issues of threat and safety, especially for young people and in urban areas.
* Active policy to promote cultural and national accommodation to promote interaction and to address fears of discrimination or threat.
* Policy to promote greater sharing and integration in education.
* Policies to address issues of territorialism and fears of sharing in areas of social housing.
* Policy to tackle racism and to reduce hostility to those from ethnic minorities.
* Policy to promote improved relationships between young people.

Discussing the themes of the report, the authors said “The survey suggests that there has been real progress in Northern Ireland since the 1980s. But long term confidence in community relations will depend on political stability which is sufficiently robust to address the risks of violence or threat. Only then will long term support for sharing and integration in education, residential areas and friendship be translated into behavioural change. Furthermore, while the next generation may be the most amenable to positive change, they are also the most vulnerable to negative events and sustainable change will require positive action.”


Notes for Editors

1. The Long View of Community Relations in Northern Ireland: 1989-2012
Duncan Morrow, Gillian Robinson and Lizanne Dowds.

2. Duncan Morrow is a Senior Lecturer in Politics and Director of  Community Engagement at the University of Ulster; Gillian Robinson is  Director of ARK and Professor of Social Research in INCORE at the  University of Ulster; Lizanne Dowds is ARK consultant at QUB.

The report will be launched on Wednesday 11 December 2013, at The Factory, 6th Floor, The MAC, 10 Exchange Street West, BELFAST, BT1 2NJ, Noon.

3.The Northern Ireland Life and Times survey (NILT) is carried out annually and documents public opinion on a wide range of social issues. Its predecessor from 1989 to 1996 was the Northern Ireland Social Attitudes survey (NISA).

NILT is a joint project of the University of Ulster and QUB, and aims to provide an independent source of information on what the public thinks about the social issues of the day. Check the website for more information on the survey findings ( or call the survey director on 028 9097 3034 with any queries.

4. This research project was funded by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) and the authors are grateful for that support.

A PDF of the full report is available for download from