Making a Difference? Public Attitudes to Devolution

Author(s): Roger MacGinty
Document Type: Chapter
Year: 2004
Title of Publication: Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland: The Ninth Report
Publisher: Pluto Press
Place of Publication: London
ISBN: 0 7453 2156 9
Pages: 92-106
Subject Area(s): Politics, Community Relations, Religion

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

Background to the Research

  • Reviewing the first Programme for Government (2001-2002), key members of the NI Executive expressed the opinion that devolution was making a difference by delivering open and accountable government for the people of NI. But was this view shared by the public in NI?
  • This chapter examines public attitudes to devolution during the time that the first Programme for Government was being replaced by the second Programme, thus giving people the opportunity to express their views on the devolved government's stated aims and delivery of those aims.

Research Approach

  • The data used by the author come mainly from the 2001 NILT survey although some findings from previous NILT surveys are used for comparative purposes.
  • The NILT survey began in 1998 and is carried out annually. Interviews are conducted with a random selection of adults (aged 18 years and over) who live in private households in NI.
  • The sample size for the 2001 NILT survey was 1,800 respondents.

Main Findings

  • 21% of respondents think that New Labour's devolution project in Wales, Scotland and NI has strengthened the UK, 17% feel that it has weakened it and 50% say it has made no difference.
  • Protestants are more likely than Catholics to see devolution as corrosive to the Union (25% and 8% respectively).
  • 42% of respondents say that the Assembly gave NI a stronger voice in the UK. Only 11% think that the Assembly gave NI a weaker voice, but 38% think that the Assembly made no difference.
  • A slim majority of respondents (51%) say that the UK government at Westminster had most say over how NI was run, with 28% opting for the NI Assembly.
  • However, 65% feel that NI should be run by the Assembly and only 17% say it should be run by Westminster.
  • 35% of respondents agree that NI's Westminster MPs should be stripped of voting rights on exclusively English matters, 28% disagree and 21% neither agree nor disagree.
  • 40% of respondents believe that the Assembly was giving people in NI more say on how NI was being governed, 8% say less, and 44% say that it was making no difference.
  • More Catholics (51%) than Protestants (31%) think that the Assembly was giving people more say.
  • The 2000 NILT survey found that 28% of respondents compared with 30% in 2001 thought that health care was getting worse post-Devolution.
  • In 2001, 24% of respondents believe that education had improved under the Assembly which is higher than the 16% who held that opinion in 2000.
  • On the question of whether the NI Assembly represented good value for money, 35% of respondents say that it definitely or probably did, as against 44% who say that it definitely or probably did not.
  • Over one half of Protestants (53%) and 36% of Catholics feel the Assembly was poor value for money.
  • Majorities in both communities - 52% of Protestants and 69% of Catholics - believe that the Assembly will still be in place in three years time.


  • Given the political context, the findings from the NILT survey produce a number of mildly encouraging responses. Public political discourse and the evident depth of enmity displayed between members of the same government may have led to reasonable expectations of more gloomy attitudes towards the Assembly.
  • Instead, many NILT respondents show a willingness to give the devolution experiment a chance and suspend definitive judgements. However, political circumstances, culminating in the suspension of devolution in October 2002, meant that the experiment was cut short. The patience displayed by many survey respondents is unlikely to be infinite.


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