More Knowing Than Knowledgable: Attitudes Towards Devolution

Author(s): Roger MacGinty and Rick Wilford
Document Type: Chapter
Year: 2000
Title of Publication: Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland: The Eighth 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: 5-21
Subject Area(s): Politics, Religion

Abbreviations: NI - Northern Ireland, NILT - Northern Ireland Life and Times, UK - United Kingdom

Background to the Research

  • It has often been argued that peace processes, in whatever context they take place, are fragile affairs that rarely prosper over the long-term without active public support. This seems to have been confirmed in NI by the prolonged delay in the initial implementation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and its 'stop-start' nature thereafter.
  • Public understanding of peace processes and/or political transitions is critical, particularly where a peace accord relies on formal public approval through a referendum. Similarly, the satisfaction of public expectations attached to a peace process may be important. Peace accords are often accompanied and justified by the promise of an end to violence, better living standards, and the improved provision of public goods and services. In this chapter, the authors discuss public knowledge of, and expectations about, NI's newly devolved institutions and the significance of the consent principle to the forging of the new political dispensation.

Research Approach

  • The data used by the authors come from the 1999 NILT survey, which was undertaken during the critical period when powers were first transferred to NI (late October 1999 to mid-January 2000).
  • The NILT survey is carried out annually and interviews 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.

Main Findings

  • In terms of constitutional preferences in NI, 56% of people favour continued union with the UK and less than a quarter (21%) favour unity with the Republic of Ireland.
  • However, 40% of people think that a united Ireland is likely or very likely within 20 year and this figure is broadly similar for both Catholics and Protestants.
  • Of those respondents who said they did not want a United Ireland, 77% nevertheless said that they would accept it either happily or resignedly. Thus, in theory at least, there is acceptance of the consent principle in NI. Perhaps surprisingly, 69% of Protestants would accept Irish unity by consent.
  • Similarly, the vast majority of Catholic rspondents (92%) who said they did not want to remain part of the UK would be willing to accept the wishes of the majority.
  • The process of establishing the NI Executive was a long and involved one and the survey findings revealed that most respondents (81%) did not understand how the new Assembly was supposed to work.
  • Perhaps reflecting this, over half of all respondents (52%) thought that the setting up of the Assembly and other government bodies should have been more open.
  • Almost half of all respondents (48%) said that the Assembly should concentrate on day-to-day issues, 11% that it should concentrate on political issues and 39% that it should deal with both equally.
  • When asked which day-to-day issues are the most important for the Assembly to deal with, respondents ranked improving the health service first (41%), followed by improving the economy (29%) and increasing job opportunities (20%). Improving transport (1%) and the environment (1%) were ranked as least important.
  • Asked whether the Assembly should be able to raise or lower income tax in NI, 57% of respondentsa agreed, 30% disagreed and 13% said they didn't know.
  • More Catholics (68%) than Protestants (49%) supported this proposition.
  • Many more Catholics (67%) than Protestants (48%) also believed that the Assembly should assume responsibility for policing.
  • When asked who has benefited most from the Good Friday Agreement, half of all respondents (50%) believed that the Agreement has benefited unionists and nationalists equally. However, this figure rose to 74% for Catholic respondents while for Protestant respondents, it fell to 32%. 46% of Protestants compared with 3% of Catholics believed that nationalists have benefited a lot more than unionists from the Agreement.
  • Overall, the survey findings showed that Catholics are more optimistic about the Assembly's future than Protestants. Less than half of all Protestant respondents (46%) think that the Assembly will still be in place in three years time, compared to 64% of Catholics.


  • The authors argue that Protestant pessimism about the future of the Assembly, and their more muted willingness to see the Assembly assume greater powers, can be regarded as a reflection of unionist dissatisfaction with the Agreement and the peace process.
  • They conclude that the 'stop start' nature of the now three-times suspended new political structures suggest that devolution in NI may yet turn out to have been an event rather than a process.



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