The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

11 Apr 2023

Public Opinion


Ben Rosher and Katy Hayward reflect on the latest Northern Ireland Life and Times survey in light of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. The survey finds low levels of public trust in political actors with responsibility for governance in Northern Ireland.

Although the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement centred on parties’ commitment to resolve differences by ‘exclusively democratic and peaceful means’, an empty Stormont chamber remains all too familiar in Northern Ireland.

The successful referendum on the 1998 Agreement on 24 May 1998 was soon followed by elections to the Assembly in June. The first cohort of MLAs took their seats in July 1998, although it wasn’t until December the following year that powers were devolved from Westminster to Stormont.

Less than three months later (in February 2000) Stormont was in a state of suspension due to a lack of progress on decommissioning of paramilitary weapons – a reminder of the scale of the challenge that faced Northern Ireland’s fragile democracy at that time.

Since then, the Assembly and its Executive have been fully functioning for only about 60% of the time. Some periods of suspension were short, others have been years long. The current impasse began in February 2022 with the resignation of the DUP First Minister, and was compounded after the May 2022 election, when the DUP refused to nominate a Speaker to allow the Assembly to convene. Since the ‘caretaker’ Executive had to step down at the end of last October, the Northern Ireland civil service has been effectively responsible for the day-to-day governance of the region.

Dysfunctional political institutions have implications for trust in those institutions and for democratic politics and constitutional settlements more broadly. Brexit exacerbated community divides that, since 1998, the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement had, with varying degrees of success, managed to accommodate. But such divisions place strain on political institutions, particularly when the functioning of those institutions depends on a willingness to share power with political opponents.

Distrusted political actors

The effects of this were tested in the 2022 iteration of the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey (NILT) which included questions on trust in political actors.[i] The survey, which has been gauging social attitudes in Northern Ireland since 1998, finds that public trust in political actors with responsibility for governance in the region is generally very low. Even worse, levels of distrust are disconcertingly high.

The Northern Ireland Executive is trusted by only 17% of people, whereas it is actively distrusted by 52%. Perhaps this is understandable given how little it has functioned as expected in recent times. But other political actors do not fare much better.

Only 21% of respondents to the NILT have any degree of trust in the UK government; compared to 60 per cent who distrust them. The Irish government, too, are distrusted by more people (36%) than trusted (28%).

Only the EU and the Northern Ireland civil service are more trusted than distrusted, with 37% of respondents trusting the EU compared to 30% who distrust it. The NI civil service comes out well in the Survey, with 41% of respondents trusting it while only 20% express distrust. Perhaps this is just as well, given that responsibility for ‘keeping the lights on’ in the region has been in the hands of the civil service for much of the past six years.

Community divisions

In Northern Ireland the most significant variables on politically-related questions tend to be community identity. Nationalists and those who identify as ‘neither unionist nor nationalist’ are generally trusting of the Irish government and the EU; in contrast, those actors are largely distrusted by unionists. This aligns with the fact that nationalists and ‘neithers’ strongly endorsed ‘Remain’, whereas the majority of unionists voted to Leave.

However, while unionists are more supportive of the UK government (and to a small degree, the NI Executive) than nationalists and ‘neithers’, the predominant mood towards the government is one of distrust. 38% of unionists trust the UK government compared to 42% who distrust it.

This helps explain why it is that hardline unionists are still wary of the latest UK-EU deal, the Windsor Framework, even though it was explicitly intended to address their concerns about Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit position.

That the unionist community is feeling a predominant lack of trust in all political institutions is of serious concern. It makes the challenge for political leaders in unionism both more crucial and more difficult. At the same time, paramilitaries and other criminal organisations are all-too-ready to fill the void – albeit with further grievance rather than solutions or improvements. This is a precarious situation.

Time to build

But there is still yet some cause for hope. The cohort with the highest level of trust across all institutions is 18–24-year-olds. This could be because they have no direct experience of the Troubles that informed the current political set up. Or perhaps, more pessimistically, because they simply accept dysfunctional politics as the norm.

A lack of functioning democratic institutions should not be the price for peace, especially not for those with no hand or part in the conflict but who still live with its ugly effects. The younger generation have a right to expect something better. The fact that they are still most willing to place their trust in political actors is something precious. But their trust will inevitably rot into the same cynicism and distrust as their parents – unless action is taken now to nurture their trust.

The twenty-fifth anniversary of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement is due time to restore people’s trust in the effectiveness and validity of ‘democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues’ in Northern Ireland, not least because there are still those on both sides who tout a diabolic alternative.

By Katy Hayward, Professor of Political Sociology, and Ben Rosher, PhD candidate, Queen’s University Belfast. 

[i] The Northern Ireland Life and Times survey is taken from a randomised sample (n. 1,405) of the adult population in the region. The survey fieldwork was conducted used Computer Assisted Web Interviewing with individuals in September-November 2022. The Research Update on Political Attitudes is released on Thursday 13 April and available from: Results from the whole survey, including tables of results, from the 2022 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey will be available from 1 June.


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