Dissident Republicans: Does Sympathy Equal “Support”?

image The results of a survey released yesterday in a conference at Queen’s University Belfast and presented again today at the Annual Meeting of the Political Studies Association of Ireland (PSAI) in Dublin reveal that 14 % of nationalists ‘had sympathy for the reasons why some republican groups (such as the Real and Continuity IRAs) continue to use violence.’

This revelation has led to some consternation in the media, with the unionist newspaper the Belfast News Letter leading with this headline on Wednesday: SHOCK AS DISSIDENT SUPPORT REVEALED.

The story is currently listed as the Most Popular Story on the News Letter’s online homepage.

Professor Jon Tonge of the University of Liverpool was involved in crafting the questions about dissident violence, which were part of the 2010 Northern Ireland General Election Survey.

The survey was completed three weeks after the end of the general election in May and carried out by Northern Ireland Market Research. It was comprised of 1002 face-to-face interviews, including 429 with nationalists, 508 with unionists, and 37 with Others.

Tonge said that his research team were taken off guard by the results, as reflected in the title of his own editorial contribution to the News Letter, ‘Surprising Level of Sympathy for Perpetrators.’

Tonge has also told the media, and those of us at the conference today, that these results indicate that there may be more support for dissident republicans than has been previously supposed. As he wrote in the News Letter,

One of the mantras of the peace process is that ‘dissident’ republicans have no support.

To suggest otherwise risks talking up a disparate, seemingly desperate, band of diehards.

… Yet the assumption that dissidents have no support has been precisely that – an assumption, untroubled by actual evidence either way.

He then goes on to present the results of the survey as if it indicates that there is more support for dissidents than had been supposed.

But I have a problem with the substitution of the word ‘support’ for the word ‘sympathy.’ After all, sympathy was the word which was used in the actual survey questions.

People were asked if they had SYMPATHY FOR THE REASONS why dissidents might use violence, not if they SUPPORTED the dissidents or if they AGREED WITH THE USE OF VIOLENCE.

When challenged on this point by Dr Katy Hayward, a sociologist at Queen’s, at today’s PSAI conference, Tonge said that the research team had deliberately chosen a ‘softer’ question about violence.

They did not want to ask a too-direct question, such as whether or not people supported dissident republican violence, for fear that they would not answer honestly.

Tonge added that they had not expected to find so much sympathy for dissidents’ use of violence. Had they anticipated this, they might have considered formulating follow-up questions that asked more directly about ‘support’ or agreement with the use of violence.

In its coverage of the survey, the Irish Times, at least, included a quote from Tonge saying, “This doesn’t mean there is unequivocal support. It’s important to put in that caveat.”

The BBC avoided the use of the word support and, more accurately, reported on the sympathy.

But  I am troubled by other reporting on the surveys, which uses the word ‘support’ without drawing out the nuances.

One such nuance is that ‘Republican Sinn Fein,’ with a stronger base in the Republic, is better ‘liked’ than the 32-County Sovereignty movement, which has a stronger base in Northern Ireland.

At today’s conference when Dr Paul Dixon of Kingston University pointed out that this seemed odd, Tonge admitted that probably some respondents had gotten their Sinn Feins mixed up and thought they were indicating that they liked Martin McGuinness and Co.

Again, ‘liking’ is not nearly as strong as saying that you ‘support’ a group.

To me, ‘support’ conjures up images of active encouragement and perhaps even participation in a movement. Using the word ‘support’ to describe the results of this survey just distorts the findings.

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