New ESRI research shows social and political attitudes generally more positive in Ireland than in Northern Ireland, though fluctuation over time

The Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) in partnership with the Shared Island Unit in the Department of the Taoiseach have published new research examining trends in social and political attitudes in each jurisdiction on the island of Ireland since 1998.

The report compares attitudes such as trust in institutions and trust in other people; attitudes to inequality; and political attitudes, specifically - satisfaction with democracy; political voice; and expectations for the future. The research draws on multiple sources of high-quality, comparative social survey data to explore the development of social and political attitudes in Ireland, North and South. In Ireland, attitudes are tracked from 1998 to 2023. In Northern Ireland, data limitations mean most attitudes are tracked from 1998 to 2018 only.

The report identifies that people’s satisfaction with democracy, trust in political, judicial and media institutions, and the feeling that their voice counts in politics were generally higher in Ireland compared to Northern Ireland, both at the start of this century and in more recent years.

Key findings include:

  • In Northern Ireland, there was a general rise in satisfaction with democracy since 1998, but a decline has been seen since 2016, and political trust, media trust, and especially optimism for the future have seen longer-term declines, particularly in the last few years observed (2016-2018) for Northern Ireland. These declines occurred at a time of renewed political instability, including the Brexit vote and repeated collapse of power-sharing from 2017 onwards. Examination of post-2018 and current attitudes on these issues will be important.
  • In Ireland, attitudes over the past two decades have been significantly shaped by the 2008/09 recession and the subsequent period of austerity. With the onset of the crash (2007/08), satisfaction with democracy, political trust, media trust, trust in other people and optimism all saw substantial declines, while support for reducing income inequality increased.
  • Ireland started and finished the study period with some of the most positive social and political attitudes in Western Europe. However, since 2019, Ireland has seen some attitudes becoming less positive. 

Differences across education

  • The past 20 to 25 years have seen the emergence and widening of gaps in social and political attitudes between more and less educated groups in both jurisdictions. While more educated groups generally have more positive societal attitudes, in both jurisdictions the size of this gap has grown (or recently emerged) for many measures.
  • The exception to these trends is in people’s expectations for the future. In 1998, higher-educated groups were more optimistic about their future than lower-educated groups. But since the 2008/09 recession, we see larger declines in optimism among the more educated group, particularly in Northern Ireland, where optimism among higher educated cohorts has more than halved in 20 years. 

Generational differences

  • In Northern Ireland, older generations have tended to hold more positive social and political attitudes than younger generations. Over time, these generational differences in satisfaction with democracy, political voice, political trust, and social trust appear to have widened, due to increasingly positive attitudes among older cohorts, and stability or even increasingly negative attitudes among younger cohorts, particularly in the 2013-2018 period.
  • In Ireland, generational differences are smaller and more stable, though in recent years young cohorts are somewhat less satisfied with democracy, their voice in politics, trust in politics and the judicial system, and less trusting of others than older cohorts.  

Report author, Dr James Laurence, stated: “This research reveals important insights into the conditions that influence social and political attitudes, and citizens’ connection to and trust in their society and institutions, across both jurisdictions on the island.” 

“The report also identifies the value in regular aligned surveys to provide comparative insights into changing societal dynamics.”