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The ‘Us’ in Trust: Who Trusts Northern Ireland's Political Institutions and Actors?

  • Cathy Gormley-Heenan and Paula Devine


This article examines levels of interest and trust among the public in relation to Northern Ireland's newly established political institutions and actors, through an analysis of the results of the 2007 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (NILT). It is important to reveal the specific groups of people with the highest levels of political disenchantment, particularly in the context of the longer-term stability of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, since the willingness of the electorate to have faith and trust in the workability of these political institutions and in the various political actors in whose custody they lie is considered vital.



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1 See Hay, Colin, Why We Hate Politics, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2007 ; Stoker, Gerry, Why Politics Matters: Making Democracy Work, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006 .

2 Access Research Knowledge (ARK), ‘Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, 2007’, available at

3 Citrin, Jack, ‘Comment: The Political Relevance of Trust in Government’, American Political Science Review, 68: 3 (1974), pp. 973–88.

4 Delhe, Jan and Newton, Kenneth, ‘Who Trusts?: The Origins of Social Trust in Seven Societies’, European Societies, 5: 2 (2003), pp. 93137 .

5 O'Flynn, Ian, ‘Divided Societies and Deliberate Democracy’, British Journal of Politics, 37: 4 (2007), pp. 731–51, at p. 745.

6 Chris Thorton, ‘DUP Feels Heat Over Stories of “Secret Talks” with Sinn Fein’, Belfast Telegraph, 11 April 2008.

7 Dixon, Paul, ‘Political Skills or Lying and Manipulation? The Choreography of the Northern Ireland Peace Process’, Political Studies, 50: 4 (2002), pp. 725–41.

8 Arthur Aughey, ‘The Art and Effect of Political Lying in Northern Ireland’, 17: 2 (2002), pp. 1–16.

9 See Kenneth Newton and Pippa Norris, ‘Confidence in Public Institutions: Faith, Culture or Performance’, in Susan Pharr and Robert Putnam (eds), Disaffected Democracies: What's Troubling the Trilateral Countries? Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2000, pp. 52–73.

10 Levi, Margaret and Stoker, Laura, ‘Political Trust and Trustworthiness’, Annual Review of Political Science, 3 (2000), pp. 475507 .

11 Larry Diamond, ‘Building Trust in Government by Improving Governance’, paper presented to the 7th Global Forum on Reinventing Government: Building Trust in Government, Vienna, 2007. Available at:

12 Tilly, Charles, ‘Trust and Rule’, Theory and Society, 33 (2004), pp. 130 .

13 Suzanne Breen, ‘Adams Calls on Unionist to Accept Changes’, Irish Times (Dublin), 11 November 1999.

14 William Scholes, ‘Arrests Were Part of the “Save Dave” ’, Irish News (Belfast), 10 December 2005.

15 Henry McDonald, ‘How IRA Scandal Spelt the Collapse of Stormont’, Observer, 6 October 2002.

16 BBC News Online, ‘Bank Raid “Hurt Political Trust”, 6 February 2005, available at

18 BBC News Online, ‘DUP Leader Insists on Photographs’, 14 December 2004, available at

19 BBC News Online, ‘IRA Says Photos Never Possible’, 9 December 2004, available at

20 BBC News Online, ‘Trust is Key Element of Peace Process’, 12 September 2005, available at

21 BBC News Online, ‘DUP Will Not Powershare with SF’, 19 May 2005, available at

22 MacGinty, Roger, Wilford, Rick, Dowds, Lizanne and Robinson, Gillian, ‘Consenting Adults: The Principle of Consent and Northern Ireland's Constitutional Future’, Government and Opposition, 36: 4 (2001), pp. 472–92.

23 See Pippa Norris, ‘Introduction: The Growth of Critical Citizens’, in Pippa Norris (ed.), Critical Citizens: Global Support for Democratic Governance, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 1–30, for an overview of the multidimensional nature of the conceptualization of political trust.

24 Newton and Norris, ‘Confidence in Public Institutions’.

25 The survey contains a wide range of potential analysis variables. The linkages between demographic variables and trust and efficacy are well known, especially in relation to age and gender. However, it was felt that the linkages with other variables within a Northern Ireland context were different to those in other UK regions. Religious affiliation and denomination are obviously of great significance in Northern Ireland society, but this is not necessarily the case in other regions. Political parties in Northern Ireland do not operate on a left–right orientation, but tend to be based on constitutional preferences, as well as having a social class dimension. Therefore, within a Northern Ireland context, analysis by political party is more informative than social class or education alone (which are highly correlated anyway).

26 Murtagh, Cera, ‘A Transient Transition: The Cultural and Institutional Obstacles Impeding the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition in its Progression from Informal to Formal Politics’, Irish Political Studies, 23: 1 (2008), pp. 2140 .

27 Democratic Dialogue, Power, Politics and Positions of Women in Northern Ireland, Belfast, Democratic Dialogue, 1996.

28 See Ashe, Fidelma, ‘The Virgin Mary Connection: Reflecting on Feminism and Northern Irish Politics’, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 9: 4 (2006), pp. 573–88.

29 McAlister, Ian, ‘“The Armalite and the Ballot Box”: Sinn Fein's Electoral Strategy in Northern Ireland’, Electoral Studies, 23: 1 (2004), pp. 123–42.

30 Paul Mitchell, Geoffrey Evans and Brendan O'Leary, ‘Changing Party Fortunes: Party Competition and Public Opinion at the Northern Ireland Assembly Elections of 2003’, ARK (Northern Ireland Social and Political Archive) Research Update 36, 2005, available at

31 Webb, Paul, ‘The Continuing Advance of the Minor Parties’, Parliamentary Affairs, 58: 4 (2005), pp. 757–75.

32 Jonathan Tonge and Jocelyn Evans, ‘The Onward March of Paisleyism or a Triumph of Unionist Apathy? Turnout and Voting for the Democratic Unionist Party in the 2005 Westminster Election in Northern Ireland’, paper presented at PSA Elections, Public Opinion and Parties Annual Conference, University of Essex, 9–11 September 2005, p. 21, available at

33 Spencer, Graham, ‘Sinn Fein and the Media in Northern Ireland: The New Terrain of Policy Articulation’, Irish Political Studies, 21: 3 (2006), pp. 355–82.

34 Electoral Commission NI, ‘The Electoral Register: Age Analysis’, Belfast, 2008, available at

35 BBC News Online, ‘Brown Wins Crunch Vote on 42 Days’, 11 June 2008, available at

36 BBC News Online, ‘Tories Will Fight for Seats in NI’, 29 September 2008, available at

37 Electoral Commission NI, ‘The Electoral Register: Age Analysis’, p. 11.

38 Evans, Jocelyn and Tonge, Jonathan, ‘The Future of the “Radical Centre” in Northern Ireland After the Good Friday Agreement’, Political Studies, 51: 1 (2003), pp. 2650 .

39 David Trimble, ‘Agreeing to Differ’, Guardian, 5 April 2008, available at

40 Newton and Norris, ‘Confidence in Public Institutions’.

41 Ibid., p. 7.

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The ‘Us’ in Trust: Who Trusts Northern Ireland's Political Institutions and Actors?

  • Cathy Gormley-Heenan and Paula Devine


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