Exploring Shifting Values: Insights from the Northern Ireland World Values Survey


In 2023 Social Change Initiative (SCI) partnered with King’s College in London to explore data from the World Values Survey (WVS) and produce the report Values and Attitudes in Northern Ireland 25 Years After the Belfast Good Friday Agreement. Findings from the report revealed a shift in values and attitudes in Northern Ireland over time and challenge some of our long-held perceptions.

SCI hosted an online session for local partners and activists, providing a briefing on the survey findings. The objective was to initiate a discussion on the data and gather feedback from local community leaders, assessing how the findings resonate with experiences in their communities.

During the session, attendees heard from:

  • James Wright, the Policy Institute at King’s College London
  • Angela Hodkinson, SCI associate.

They presented a brief overview of the World Values Survey and discussed the Northern Ireland findings. Followed by:

  • Dessie Donnelly, a trade union, community, and human rights organiser, and director of the tech company Rabble co-op, which collaborates with local campaigning organizations and social movements to incorporate tech into their campaigns.
  • Charmain Jones, Women’s Spaces Coordinator for the Northern Ireland Rural Women’s Network

Dessie and Charmain shared their views on the survey findings – the implications, useability and what it said to them personally.

Dessie noted the importance of making quality survey data such as this widely available, highlighting how “this type of open data that gives some kind of empirical evidence is really critical” and the potential it holds for use by a range of different interest groups. In relation to the survey’s finding limited evidence of deep political polarisation in Northern Ireland, he confirmed that through his work he has observed an increased diversity within local communities and a gradual breaking of the bonds that previously tied people to different sides of ‘the constitutional question’. He disagreed with the idea that society losing faith in political institutions is worrying, seeing healthy scepticism as positive and emphasising that “Real change never arises from stability... real change arises from disruption.” Dessie also challenged the notion of democracy as being dichotomous from authoritarianism – it is not an either/or. He suggested that the findings indicating disillusionment with democracy may be more reflective of people’s dissatisfaction with the failures of today’s democracies – limited citizen participation and inability of governments to tackle major issues - than they are indicative of support for more authoritarian forms of government. Dessie welcomed the opportunity that the report provided to support people to engage in “big picture discussions and debates” on priority issues - he felt more of this is needed if disillusion is to be harnessed to drive positive social change. 

Charmain reflected on where we are, 25 years after the Belfast-Good Friday Agreement, on issues of peacebuilding and reconciliation for women in rural communities across Northern Ireland. She highlighted where the experiences of these communities align with the survey findings and where experiences differ. She noted enduring influences of religion within the rural population, especially on social issues like abortion and homosexuality and the resulting impact on women and LGBTQ+ communities. Aligning with the survey, she observed dissatisfaction with political systems among rural women, potentially reaching an all-time low. Charmain also noted strong confidence levels within the rural community toward NGOs and community sector organisations.

James Wright suggested that additional information on the topics under consideration can be found on the UK World Values Survey website, and highlighted the vast scope of the WVS survey and potential for further investigation of values in Northern Ireland beyond the current report. He reflected on the data concerning the lack of trust in political institutions, emphasising that this is an area of particular interest for King's College London. Specifically, the concern around understanding to what extent the ‘healthy scepticism’ in democratic institutions and politics in practice translates into a rejection of democratic values.

Commenting on the discussion, Roisin Woods, CEO of the Community Foundation Northern Ireland, shared the perspective from the standpoint of funders. She noted that the data revealing a lack of trust and dissatisfaction with political institutions was no surprise. Emphasising their approach when allocating funds to the sector, she expressed the importance of aligning support with the sector's actual needs rather than conforming to the government's perception of those needs. Additionally, Woods stressed the significance of placing individuals with lived experience at the forefront of the decision-making process.

Padraic Quirk, Deputy Director of SCI, brought the session to a close by expressing gratitude to both presenters and participants for their diverse contributions. He underscored the significance of the data, emphasising the importance of “getting quality evidence and data around important issues like where people sit across values in the public sphere, to generate insightful conversations about the place we live in.

SCI is now facilitating a series of workshops with local communities in Northern Ireland to discuss community perceptions of the WVS findings and encourage self-reflection. The workshops aim to foster open dialogue and understanding among community members, encouraging them to critically analyse the implications of the shifting values and attitudes highlighted in the report.

Watch the full online session below: