Beyond Unionism and Nationalism in Northern Ireland: Electors, Voters and Party Members

Project: Research council

Project Details


Politics in Northern Ireland has always been framed upon unionist versus nationalist divisions. Power-sharing between unionists and nationalists is mandatory in the devolved Executive and Assembly. Yet, according to the 2019 ESRC Northern Ireland election study, 40% of Northern Ireland's electors say they are neither unionist nor nationalist, compared to only 27% identifying as unionist and 25% as nationalist.

Despite this, remarkably little is known about those 'neithers', in terms of who they are, why they reject unionism and nationalism, their reasons for voting or abstaining, and the depth of their backing for non-unionist and non-nationalist parties. This project aims to rectify these knowledge gaps by surveying those electors who identify as neither unionist nor nationalist and undertaking a membership study of the main representatives of the non-aligned grouping, the Alliance Party, the only non-aligned party represented in Northern Ireland's government.

The project involves an extensive demographic and attitudinal survey of a) electors declaring they are neither unionist or nationalist, to understand their background and their rationale and b) to examine the views of those committed to the rejection of unionism and nationalism within the largest party, Alliance, not aligned to either unionism or nationalism, via a survey of the entire party membership to which the party has agreed.

By analysing the demography and views of non-voters, voters and party members who eschew unionism and nationalism, we will achieve a far better understanding of Northern Ireland's understudied third tradition, numerically its largest but the least researched. We will analyse several different types of elector rejecting unionism and nationalism:

a) the non-voter who refuses to participate in the electoral system because of that rejection.
b) the voter who supports Alliance, or other smaller non-unionist/non-nationalist parties, e.g. the Greens, because they are neither unionist or nationalist and/or because they back the policies of that particular party;
c) the non-unionist and non-nationalist voter who nonetheless votes for a unionist or nationalist party for various reasons, such as tactical or lower preference voting.
d) the committed rejectionists of the existing unionist v nationalist binary within Alliance's membership, assessing how the party attempts to either i) accommodate compromises between unionists and nationalists or ii) overcome Northern Ireland's divisions iii) understand what ethnic-blind policies, to diminish sectarian divisions, are backed by party members.

This is an important project because:

a) we need to understand how non-ethnic electors and party members view the ethnic party system in which they are asked to participate.
b) Northern Ireland's centre ground is large and unlikely to disappear. Alliance saw its vote share increase by 11% and 9% respectively in the 2019 European and Westminster elections. The party's vote shares in those contests, of 19% (European)and 17% (Westminster) represented record highs for the party. Alliance has risen to become Northern Ireland's third-best supported party, behind only the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin.
c) non-unionist and non-nationalist electors are the 'swing' voters who need to be won by unionists or nationalists in any future border poll on Northern Ireland's constitutional future, permitted under the Good Friday Agreement.
d) little is known about the centre ground and its main party. There has been no book-length academic study of electors or parties outside Northern Ireland's two main traditions, only a solitary activist's volume on Alliance and only three journal articles dedicated to the organisation. This dearth of material highlights a wider research problem: that the focus upon ethnically divided societies is mainly their ethnic parties, not organisations beyond the sectarian divide.
Effective start/end date1/11/2131/10/23

Collaborative partners

  • University of Bath
  • University of Liverpool (lead)
  • University of Ulster
  • Canterbury Christ Church University
  • University of Huddersfield


  • Economic and Social Research Council


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