Northern Ireland identity may serve as less adversarial for politically moderate Catholics and Protestants

Survey finds two-thirds of Protestants feel ‘not at all’ European, unlike many southerners

In our examination of public attitudes to the presidency and the selection of Seanad members, we asked the public to respond to proposals for institutional reform that would “help make people in the North who identify as British feel as included as possible in a united Ireland”. Here, we examine British identity in more detail:

We assess how strongly people in the North identify as British, and how this identification compares to intensity of attachment to the Irish identity, both North and South. We also assess “Northern Irish” as a possible over-arching or bridging identity in the North, and the role of European identity on both sides of the Border.

In the Arins/Irish Times surveys, North and South, respondents were asked to indicate the extent to which they feel British on a 0-10 scale running from 0 “not at all” to 10 “very strongly”. They were additionally asked, using the same scale, about Irish, Northern Irish and European identity.

Three-way split

In the North, when we focus on respondents who picked the strongest possible level of identification (10, very strongly) we find a very even three-way split: almost one-third each for British, Irish and Northern Irish. If we include all responses on the positive side of the scale between 6 and 10, a slight majority (52 per cent) identify as Northern Irish, whereas 48 per cent identify as Irish and 46 per cent as British.


The slight predominance of Northern Irish identity, by our measure, results from significant proportions of both Catholics and Protestants making this affirmation: two-fifths of Catholics and two-thirds of Protestants pick between six and 10 on the Northern Irish scale.

Catholics and Protestants may identify as Northern Irish for somewhat different reasons. For those from a Catholic background, Northern Irish may simply be a different way of expressing Irishness – being Irish but from the geographical north (they are “northern” Irish). And for those from a Protestant background it may simply signify an identity consistent with unionism – a “Northern Irish” identity, derived from living in one of the component parts of the UK.

A further reason for holding a Northern Irish identity may be that for politically moderate Catholics and Protestants it is a way of expressing identity in a less adversarial fashion. We find, in our data, some evidence for this interpretation when we examine how identity breaks down by party supporters.

Party support

Almost three-quarters of Sinn Féin supporters in the North (72 per cent) pick 10 on the Irish scale, compared to half (49 per cent) of SDLP supporters. In contrast, 78 per cent of Democratic Unionist Party voters pick 10 on the British scale compared to 56 per cent of Ulster Unionist Party voters.

Almost half of SDLP voters choose 6-10 on the Northern Irish scale, compared to 29 per cent of Sinn Féin voters. Just half of DUP supporters pick 6-10 on the Northern Irish scale compared to two thirds of UUP voters (68 per cent).

A similar pattern emerges at the other end of the scale. Sinn Féin supporters are more likely to say that they are not at all Northern Irish (39 per cent) than are SDLP supporters (24 per cent). And almost twice as many DUP supporters (28 per cent) as UUP supporters (15 per cent) say that they are not at all Northern Irish.

And rejection of “Northern Irish” is related to strong identification with either British or Irish: four-fifths of Catholics who say they are “not at all” Northern Irish pick 10 for Irish (compared to only half of the Catholics who say they are “very strongly” Northern Irish); and 82 per cent of Protestants who say they are “not at all” Northern Irish pick 10 for British (compared to 64 per cent of Protestants who say they are “very strongly” Northern Irish).

It is also interesting to note that a majority of Alliance voters indicate – by ticking between six and 10 on the scale – that they feel Irish or (especially) Northern Irish. Just over four in 10 feel European or British.

The possible flexibility of “Northern Irish” and its possible role as a shared identity poses an interesting challenge for advocates of Irish unification. “Northern Irish” may be a halfway house or bridging identity for Protestant unionists, somewhere between British and Irish. Should unification advocates embrace Northern Irishness as a vehicle of inclusivity, even at the expense of de-emphasising “pure” or unqualified Irishness?


Unsurprisingly, extremely few Northern Protestants very strongly identify as European (only 4 per cent). The proportion rises to just 12 per cent once the whole positive spectrum of the scale (6-10) is taken into account. Two-thirds of Protestants are “not at all” European. In contrast, many southerners feel European: one-quarter “very strongly” so, and two-thirds fairly or very strongly (6-10), while two-fifths of Northern Catholics are fairly or very strongly European.

It is therefore currently implausible to see the European identity as playing a strong bridging role under possible Irish unification.

Perhaps surprisingly, given that Northern Ireland is famous, or infamous, as a site of intense national identity, it is southerners who are most likely to opt for the strongest indication of identity: 78 per cent choose 10 (“very strongly”) on the Irish scale while 93 per cent pick 6-10 on the Irish scale.

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