Devolution remains popular despite problems with Good Friday Agreement
Published March 4th 2003 in Economic and Social Research Council

New Research

Devolution remains popular despite problems with Good Friday Agreement -Devolution remains the most popular constitutional option in Northern Ireland, despite the problems with the Belfast agreement and growing suspicions between Protestants and Catholics, according to new research published today. Dr Roger MacGinty, a politics lecturer at the University of York, will present his findings at a major conference on devolution in Northern Ireland in Belfast today (Tuesday 4 March). The conference is being org-anised by the Economic and Social Research Council, as part of its Devolution Programme.

The conference will also hear a call to reconsider the voting system to encourage politicians to reach across the sectarian divide by Robin Wilson of Democratic Dialogue and Professor Rick Wilford of Queen's University Belfast.

And Dr Gillian Robinson, University of Ulster and director of ARK (the Northern Ireland Social and Political Archive) will present data showing that Northern Ireland Catholics and Protestants are less optimistic about community relations than they were after the paramilitary ceasefires of the mid 1990s and the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

"Public attitudes on devolution are surprisingly positive," says Dr Mac Ginty. "There is general approval of the idea despite uncertainty about whether services like health and education have improved. Catholics are more positive than Protestants, and both communities want the Northern Ireland Assembly to be given more powers in the future."

Using figures from the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, Dr Mac Ginty found that 40% of people felt that devolution gave them more say, while only 8% said it gave them less say. Across the community as a whole, 43% of people support devolution, compared with 21% support for a united Ireland, 13% for direct rule from Westminster and 10% favouring independence. "The emphasis on either-or constitutional choices by Northern Ireland's politicians misreads the public mood," he concludes. "More than any oth-er option, the people of Northern Ireland want effective devolved government."

In a separate paper, Prof Wilford and Robin Wilson will argue that the introduction of an alternative electoral system, perhaps based on the alternative vote in single member constituencies (with a proportionality top-up) rather than the existing Single Transferable Vote would require political parties to seek support outside their traditional support base, thus moderating their identities.

They also argue that Northern Ireland Assembly members should not be required to register their communal affiliation. And they suggest that the Executive should result from a coalition agreement between political parties rather than having its members automatically appointed.

Robin Wilson says: "There is no incentive in the current arrangements for Northern Ireland politicians to think beyond issues of sovereignty and the question of who exercises legitimate force. Until they are able to think and act outside this box, political stability will still be an illusion and the political system will drift from one crisis to the next. Our constitutional proposals could go a long way to engender future stability and to making the democratic institutions workable."

Dr Gillian Robinson's analysis based on data from the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey will show that:

The proportion of people believing that relations between Catholics and Protestants are "better now than five years ago" fell from 50 per cent in 1998 to 28 per cent in 2001. Pessimism is greater among Protestants than Catholics.

The proportion of Catholics believing that relations will "be better in 5 years time" fell from 75 per cent in 1998 to 40 per cent in 2001; among Protestants, the proportion fell from 53 per cent to 27 per cent in the same period.

The proportion of Protestants "who would prefer to live in a mixed religion neighbourhood" fell from a 1996 peak of 81 per cent to 59 per cent in 2001; among Catholics the proportions fell from 85 per cent in 1996 to 72 per cent in 2001.

Dr Robinson says: "While initiatives to promote cultural, religious and political pluralism are having some positive impact at grassroots level, there are worrying indications that Northern Ireland is in some respects becoming more divided again. The proportion of people believing that relations between Catholics and Protestants are deteriorating has been rising. There has been a growth in cross-community tensions, hostility and intimidation in recent years which reflects a polarised political battlefield.-

"People in Northern Ireland seem to be reflecting the starkly drawn identities and incompatible constitutional demands being presented by their political leaders. While it is still important to emphasise that majorities of both Protestants and Catholics still prefer mixed religion neighbourhoods and workplaces, there is an increasing tendency to retreat into single identity environments after the short-lived optimism of the mid-nineties."


For further information on the conference, Devolution in Northern Ireland: Records and Prospects please contact Peter Sharpe at ESRC Devolution Programme, University of Birmingham on 121-414-2991 or email [email protected]

Dr Roger Mac Ginty can be contacted at the University of York on 190-443-2644 or via email at [email protected] Robin Wilson can be contacted at Democratic Dialogue on 289-022-0050 or email [email protected] Dr Gillian Robinson can be contacted at ARK, the University of Ulster on 287-137-5502 or email [email protected]

Or Iain Stewart at the ESRC on 179-341-3032


1. The conference Devolution in Northern Ireland: Records and Prospects will take place at the Stormont Hotel, Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast from 09.15 to 17.30 on Tuesday 4 March 2003. It is part of the Economic and Social Research Council Devolution Programme. More details about the programme are at

2. The full findings are in the following papers:

A breathing space for devolution? Public attitudes to constitutional issues in a devolved Northern Ireland by Roger Mac Ginty (Dept of Politics, University of York).

Northern Ireland: a route to stability? by Robin Wilson (Democratic Dialogue) and Prof. Rick Wilford (Queen's University Belfast).

Community Relations in Northern Ireland: The Long View by Joanne Hughes, Caitlin Donnelly, Gillian Robinson and Lizanne Dowds (University of Ulster). This research is funded by the Office of the First Minister/Office of the Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland.

Copies of the full research reports may be found

3. Tables of results from the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey are available online at

4. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £76 million every year in social science and at any time is supporting some 2,000 researchers in academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences to nurture the researchers of tomorrow. -More at

5. REGARD is the ESRC's database of research. It provides a key source of information on ESRC social science research awards and all associated publications and products. The website can be found at