by Dr Orna YOUNG for FactCheckNI (26 June 2019)

Sweetman’s Pub. Dublin, Ireland. (c) Allan LEONARD @MrUlster

What is the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey?

The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (NILT) is a social attitudinal survey that was established in 1998 by Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University. It has been conducted annually since (with the exception of 2011, due to funding constraints).

What does it cover?

The survey questions the demographic and socio-economic positioning of each respondent annually. In addition to this, it contains four or five “modules”, which have varied since its inception. Questions within these modules may be changed to ensure the survey remains reflective of the social, economic and cultural context of any given year. The 2018 NILT included the following sections:

  • Introductory questions
  • Respect
  • Minority ethnic people
  • Abortion
  • Good relations
  • LGBT issues
  • Palliative care
  • Political attitudes
  • Criminal justice system
  • Community safety and perceptions of paramilitary influence
  • Background

How does it work?

The NILT website explains the methodology in the following terms:

“The 2018 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey involved 1,201 face-to-face interviews with adults aged 18 years or over. The main interview was carried out using computer assisted personal interviewing (CAPI) and the respondent was then asked to complete a self-completion questionnaire”

It also details how respondents are selected:

“The sample for the 2018 survey consisted of a systematic random sample of addresses selected from the Postcode Address File (PAF) database of addresses. This is the most up-to-date and complete listing of addresses…The person to be interviewed was randomly selected using the ‘next birthday’ rule. The interviewer asked the householder to list the birthdays of all members of the household eligible for inclusion in the sample: that is, all persons aged 18 or over living at the address. The person with the next birthday, at the time of the call, was the person with whom the interview was to be conducted. Where the selected respondent was not available, an appointment was made to call back to interview them at a more suitable time.”

Where is it used?

The results of the NILT are referenced in many public documents from the government’s Together: Building a United Community (T:BUC) strategy, and audits of Good Relations need within local Councils. The result indicators for tens of millions of pounds of European PEACE IV Programme funding are directly monitored from information collected by the NILT survey.

What does it tell us about identity in Northern Ireland?

Recent media coverage has placed emphasis on the fact that the 2018 NILT survey found that half of the population of Northern Ireland describe themselves as “neither unionist or nationalist”. Respondents were asked: “Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a unionist, a nationalist or neither?”. Just over a quarter (26%) replied that they considered themselves to be unionists, while just over a fifth (21%) described themselves as nationalists.

However, it is important to consider these findings in the context of previous years’ results from the same question posed by the NILT survey. The results evidence the transient nature of perceptions of identity in relation to “unionism”, “nationalism” or “neither”.

Indeed, while the numbers indicating themselves as “unionist” was the lowest on record, similar numbers were also reflected in the years 2012, 2013 and 2016. Respondents indicating that they considered themselves “nationalist” were not the lowest on record (as was seen in 2008) and are the same as the findings in 2018. The highest number of those indicating “neither” (50%) builds on the previous years (2016 and 2017) upward trend. It is important to note that there have been years previously, in which “neither” has featured significantly, and not dropped below 40%, since 2006.

Statistics and identity

Identity is complex, and an evolving dialogue between the personal and the communal. As a result, analysis of it tends to be divided between two camps: that which may be considered broad and communal; and that which is more narrow and/or individualistic. Broader considerations situate individual people and their identity as products of wider social and/or economic forces, which are informed by structural forces or dominant ideologies. Analysis at the level of the individual emphasises difference and the variation in experience, and tends to be less concerned with external influences.

In research terms, this means capturing a picture of the identity of a region at a specific time, is often a challenge.

Add to this the “two community” paradigm within which Northern Ireland often operates (which we at FactCheckNI have discussed in relation to the census), and “identity” becomes a much more difficult area to explore. It has been suggested that here are two key factors which make this tricky:

  1. the nature of surveys as a methodology; and
  2. the influence of external factors.

Firstly, surveys are an efficient and cost effective way to gain an insight into trends on any particular topic. They do not allow for a comprehensive, in-depth exploration, or indeed analyses, of the reasons people have answered as they have. They are a snapshot of communal attitudes at a given time. Patricia Devine described the NILT in the following useful analogy: “As such, we often describe NILT and other time-series surveys as measuring the ‘climate’, rather than the day-to-day ‘weather patterns’.” They are often limited to a set of pre-selected answers, and therefore, frame the nature of the answers respondents will give. Added to this, and as discussed earlier, a one-word answer to tick in relation to identity, negates all the experiences informing that selection, as well as the myriad of other identities which may prove to be far more important to the individual. As discussed, much has been made of the growth in the selection of “neither”, but given the numbers indicating their identity is “neither” unionist or nationalist, is it now time to unpack what identities occupy the space afforded by it?

Secondly, an annual survey such as the NILT cannot correlate the impact of influence of external factors or events. As such, we can only speculate about any potential correlations. A much more in depth (perhaps qualitative), and equally longitudinal, research process would be required to rigorously draw out the implications for identity as a result of events such as the Brexit result and debate since 2016, for example.

The NILT is a unique and important gauge of trends in identity and communal affiliation. However, to utilise the data in isolation may be too superficial an analysis. It is important to note that other research projects, such as the Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report series, have utilised this data as an element of analysis of the wider picture of social, political and cultural change in Northern Ireland. However, the 50% “neither” findings of the 2018 survey are important, as they invite us to ensure a wider public discussion about what it means for the region in terms of our politics, public services, and other areas which have been subject to the unionist/nationalist dichotomy.