Gauging community climate not weather: Bonfires and flags #NILT16 survey

Gauging community climate not weather:
Bonfires and flags #NILT16 survey 
by Sam ALLEN for Shared Future News
22 November 2017

Flags and bonfires are a contentious issue within the politics of Northern Ireland, with people expressing their cultural and political identity by putting up flags and commemorating specific dates with bonfires. Unfortunately this has also led to tension and occasionally violence. Views on these issues have changed over recent years and the social research body ARK (Access Research Knowledge) has documented these opinions in its surveys — the most recent study being the 2016 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (NILT). The NILT is an attitudinal survey directed at adults and has been operating annually since 1998.

Gillian Robinson (Research Director of ARK) and Paula Devine (Co-director) presented their findings in a short seminar at the Skainos Centre: “Bonfires and Flags: What do People in Northern Ireland Think?”. Robinson gave the main presentation, explaining what their research had discovered regarding people’s opinions on flags and bonfires (also referred to as “markers of identity”). The 2016 NILT findings came from 1,208 randomly selected individuals from across Northern Ireland who completed interviews, with a response rate of 55 percent. Robinson made it clear, however, that “these are Northern Ireland wide findings and, if you like, they are a measure of the overall climate; they’re not the particular weather in smaller areas”.

The first key finding was that people who felt that relations between Protestants and Catholics were improving had increased, but it was explained that opinions on community relations are highly susceptible to current events. This figure was shown in order to set the context for the other statistics, specifically those “dealing with reactions to markers” (e.g. murals, curb paintings and/or flags).

Identity markers

The data showed that in regards to Republican markers, 9 percent of all interviewees felt intimidated and 24 percent were annoyed by them. These sentiments were slightly higher towards Loyalist markers, with 13 percent intimidated and 29 percent annoyed overall. It was pointed out that two-thirds of all interviewees reported not being annoyed by either markers at all, with Robinson adding “sometimes in public debate that’s forgotten about”.

Catholics had higher levels of annoyance at Loyalist markers (32 percent) than Protestants towards Republican markers (26 percent), whereas roughly the same number of Catholics (19 percent) and Protestants (20 percent) reported that both types of markers bothered them.


The next data set specifically addressed flags being attached to lampposts. Overall 48 percent of interviewees were in favour of flags being flown on lampposts on specific dates and events, while 34 percent opposed this. The group that supported this proposition the most were Unionists (69 percent). The group with the lowest support were those who identified as Irish (34 percent). Concerning the statement, “If flags appear on lampposts I would like them all taken down straightaway, even if this causes trouble”, 45 percent of respondents agreed and 33 percent disagreed. The demographic that agreed with this statement the most were Nationalists (62 percent) and the least supportive were British (35 percent).

Interviewees were also asked how frequently the Union flag should be flown at public buildings. The majority (59 percent) stated that it should only be flown on designated days, 20 percent said all the time, 14 percent said never, and the remainder simply said they didn’t know. The option of “All the time” was supported by 38 percent of Protestants and 45 percent of Unionists. The option of “Never” was supported by 27 percent of Catholics and 34 percent of Nationalists.


The final issue revolved around bonfires. Robinson noted that questions addressing bonfires had never been asked before on a NILT survey. However, due to space limitations they could only ask two questions on this topic. The first question asked if bonfires are “a legitimate form of cultural celebration”. The overall results were: agree 42 percent, disagree 33 percent, and 23 percent neither. What’s significant was the frequency of the “neither” option (which was also at similar levels across the identity categories), which Robinson pointed out was unusual for this type of survey. Protestants and Unionists tended to agree (56 and 67 percent) that bonfires were legitimate, while Catholics and Nationalists tended to disagree (51 and 59 percent).

The final question asked if bonfire organisers were ultimately responsible for any damages or injuries occurred. This proved to be one of the least controversial questions, with 86 percent of respondents agreeing and only a 5 percent minority disagreeing. There was little difference between the identity groups on this issue. “Maybe that is not a surprising finding,” Robinson remarked, “but I think it is very good to have that finding documented at this stage given the discussions last year, particularly in the media around responsibility.”

A question and answer segment followed, and the first question was why there was no distinction made between certain types of flags, specifically the Union flag and loyalist flags. The panel agreed that this was a valid observation and replied, “In future surveys we should disentangle this.” Others asked similarly why memorials, other political flags (e.g. rainbow flag), and street art weren’t specifically clarified in the survey. The panel reiterated that they were limited in terms of the size of the survey and the number of questions allowed. Additionally a member of the audience commented that certain communities can have unique issues regarding identity markers, such as South Belfast, which is a very mixed and diverse neighbourhood. The panel agreed but stated that this survey, as mentioned earlier, just gave a general overview of all of Northern Ireland and that certain areas will undoubtedly have some anomalies.

The full survey can be found at the ARK webpage:


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