Ten Years of Social Attitudes to Community Relations in Northern Ireland

Author(s): Joanne Hughes and Caitlin Donnelly
Document Type: Chapter
Year: 2002
Title of Publication: Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland: The 8th Report
Editor(s): Ann Marie Gray, Katrina Lloyd, Paula Devine, Gillian Robinson and Deirdre Heenan
Publisher: Pluto Press
Place of Publication: London
ISBN: 0 7453 1911 4
Pages: 39-55
Subject Area(s): Community Relations, Religion

Abbreviations: NI - Northern Ireland, NISA - Northern Ireland Social Attitudes, NILT - Northern Ireland Life and Times

Background to the Research

  • Over the last ten years there have been many changes in the political and policy landscape of NI. The paramilitary ceasefires, new constitutional arrangements, and the establishment of a policy agenda and legal framework that uphold the principles of pluralism and equality for all, provide a new context in which to examine community relations. This chapter presents time-series survey data from 1989 through to 1999 which shows evidence of shifting patterns in attitudes towards community relations issues in NI.

Research Approach

  • The data used by the authors come from the 1989 and 1996 NISA surveys and from the 1999 NILT survey.
  • The NISA surveys were carried out annually from 1989 to 1996 and interviewed a random selection of adults (aged 18 years and over) who lived in private households in NI. The sample size was around 800.
  • The NILT survey began in 1998 and is carried out annually. Interviews are carried out with a random selection of adults (aged 18 years and over) who live in private households in NI. The sample size for the 1999 NILT survey was 2,200.
  • Similar questions on community relations were asked in both the NISA surveys and the NILT surveys which makes it possible to compare data across the years.
  • Five questions asked in the 1989 and 1996 surveys can be compared with identical or virtually identical equivalents from the 1999 survey.
  • In addition, the authors have provided an analysis of new questions in the 1999 survey that relate to the new equality agenda in NI.

Main Findings

  • In the period 1989 to 1996 there was an increase in the proportion of people who believed that relations between Catholics and Protestants had improved in the 5 years previous to the survey (from 21% to 46%).
  • In contrast, the figure rose by only 4 percentage points between 1996 and 1999.
  • Of particular significance, however, is that there is a growing disparity in attitudes between Protestants and Catholics after 1996.
  • The percentage of people who thought relations would be better in 5 years time increased from 25% to 56% from 1989 to 1999.
  • However, Catholics were more favourable than Protestants in their assessments. Compared to 1996, the 1999 data show a rise of 19 percentage points among Catholics and only a rise of 7 percentage points among Protestants who believed that relations would improve.
  • In the 1999 survey, 73% of respondents said they prefered to live in mixed religion neighbourhoods. The figure for 1996 was 82%.
  • In the period 1996 to 1999, the percentage of Protestants who prefered to live in mixed religion neighbourhoods fell from 80% to 68%. The comparable figures for Catholics were 85% to 79%.
  • The proportion of respondents expressing a desire to work with only those of their own religion increased from 3% in 1996 to 9% in 1999. There was a greater tendency in 1999 than in 1996 for both Catholics and Protestants to express a desire to work in religiously segregated workplaces, although this trend was more pronounced for Protestants.
  • In 1999, 10% fewer respondents overall said they would prefer to work in mixed religion workplaces when compared with the 1996 data.
  • Overall, 62% of respondents in 1996 said they would prefer to send their child to a mixed religion school and the figure rose slightly to 64% in 1999. These figures are higher than those recoded in the 1989 suvey which found that 53% of respondents would prefer to send their child to a mixed religion school. However, Catholics were more likely than Protestants to prefer the option of mixed religion schools across all survey years.
  • In 1999, a number of questions on the NILT Survey asked respondents about their perceptions of the Equality Agenda in NI. The survey found general agreement among all respondents (91%) that equality should be a top priority for government.
  • However, just over half (52%) of all respondents believe that Protestants and Catholics are treated equally. Almost two thirds (64%) of Protestants think that Protestants and Catholics are treated equally while the figure for Catholics is 38%.
  • Of those respondents who thought that there was not equality of treatment in NI, 48% said that Protestants were treated better. However, almost three quarters of Catholics (73%) believe that Protestants are treated better while 52% of Protestants believe that Catholics are treated better.
  • More than twice as many Protestants as Catholics agreed or strongly agreed that the rights of the 'other community' are talked about more than the rights of their own.
  • Protestants are more pessimistic than Catholics about the future prospects for the universal acceptance of all cultural traditions in NI. Only 38% of Protestants compared to 60% of Catholics believe that at some time in the future the viewpoints of all cultural traditions will be accepted by everyone in NI.
  • More Protestants (22%) than Catholics (15%) agree that compromise and accommodation means that everyone loses out.


  • The authors conclude that, in general, Catholics seem more amenable to cross-community contact as demonstrated by their greater willingness to integrate. In addition, Catholics also appear to be more confident that their rights and cultural traditions will be protected.
  • In contrast, however, there appears to be a growing sense of distrust and unease within the Protestant community. Protestants expressed less enthusiasm for inter-religious mixing, a pattern which becomes more pronounced after 1996. Taken together with the findings from the 1999 NILT Survey, which shows that Protestant respondents were less confident than Catholic respondents that their rights and cultural traditions will be protected, it is reasonable to assume that Protestants are experiencing greater difficulty than Catholics with the changes that are occuring at what the authors term the 'macro-political and the meso-institutional' levels within NI.

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