As Northern Ireland marks its centenary, there’s much talk about its constitutional future. The UK’s departure from the European Union has galvanised the debate about whether Northern Ireland should, in turn, leave the UK to join a united Ireland. Even though polls routinely find a higher level of support for Northern Ireland remaining in the UK than for constitutional change, a referendum on the subject appears increasingly likely in the medium-term.

Unionists face a choice: either to ignore or to engage with this mounting debate. Writing in the News Letter in October 2020, former First Minister Peter Robinson made clear his position: “I know there are border poll deniers who think such a referendum will never be called or believe that to talk about and prepare for a plebiscite creates momentum that will speed its arrival,” adding pointedly, “I do not subscribe to such complacent and dangerous thinking.” 

For Mr Robinson, the groundwork must begin. He makes the crucial point that in order to have the best chance of winning such a referendum, the task of preparing for it must go beyond political parties. For one thing, he notes that unionist parties don’t have a strong track record of working well together around a common cause. For another, he highlights the day-to-day constraints on the activity of political parties. Their energies tend to be focused on the short term, reacting to immediate crises and day-to-day events at the expense of more strategic, long-term thinking. 

Instead, Mr Robinson advocates the establishment of a permanent pro-union think tank or working group. It would receive input from a broad range of voices to make the best case for Northern Ireland’s continued union with Great Britain through research papers and active campaigning. In fact, since the former First Minister’s article, one such group has emerged on the political scene. 

Launched in December 2020, UnitingUK describes itself as a “cross-party, cross-community campaign group” which aims “to educate, communicate, research and campaign to show the benefits of being part of the UK.” It recognises something which Mr Robinson does not explicitly acknowledge: that existing unionist parties in Northern Ireland fail to connect with the full spectrum of voters who will be decisive in any future referendum. As one of its founding members, Philip Smith, wrote on Slugger O’Toole, the group’s “focus is on people who feel left behind by traditional unionism, such as young people, liberals and minorities.”

This is a strategically wise decision. Let’s start by considering the generational gap between the political preferences of many young people and the policies of the main unionist parties. As in other places, young people in Northern Ireland tend to be more socially liberal than their parents or grandparents. A 2019 survey by the University of Liverpool found that 65% of those aged 18–24 in Northern Ireland supported the legalisation of same-sex marriage, compared to 41% among those aged 60 and older. 

More generally, beyond age we also see that non-voters appear to be more socially liberal compared to those who voted in the 2019 general election: 50% of voters in Northern Ireland said they thought abortion should only be legal in cases where the mother’s life is in danger, compared to 41% among non-voters. We can expect to see many more people turn out to participate in a referendum on an issue as important as Northern Ireland’s constitutional future compared to regular Westminster or Assembly elections, thus changing the ideological profile of the voting electorate. 

In such a referendum, of course, the campaign will be about much more than social issues. But given the relative lack of ideological diversity among unionist representatives, it may make it harder for them to connect with and mobilise key voters who simultaneously include the most politically disenfranchised and the most persuadable. 

There are more people who are potentially persuadable on the constitutional question than many realise. While unionism lost its majority for the first time in the Northern Ireland Assembly after the 2017 election, those identifying as unionist in the wider population have been a minority for much longer. According to the 2019 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, 33% of adults identified as unionist and 23% as nationalist, while a further 39% identified as neither nationalist nor unionist. In other words, assuming that all unionists would vote in a referendum to stay in the UK and that all nationalists would vote to join a united Ireland (and, indeed, that everyone eligible to participate does cast a ballot), those identifying as neither will hold the balance of power. 

Many of those who identify as neither do still hold a constitutional preference – it just doesn’t define their political identity. And, indeed, this is a diverse group containing a range of other identities. Currently, the available evidence suggests that most of those who identify as neither nationalist nor unionist are more supportive of the status quo than a united Ireland. But, by definition, if they don’t choose to identify as unionist (or nationalist, for that matter), their long-term support for a particular constitutional position cannot be assumed. 

Peter Robinson is right to warn unionists of the need to engage with a debate on Northern Ireland’s future, rather than to ignore it – and similarly sensible in highlighting the need for non-partisan groups to help reach voters for whom existing unionist parties are a turn-off. But unionist parties themselves can still strengthen – or weaken – their cause, depending on how much they recognise that Northern Ireland’s future rests on persuasion, not pressure. 

Some unionists would like to see a fixed link to Scotland to help protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. In this centenary year, a more effective way of achieving this goal would be to focus on building bridges to develop new political connections within Northern Ireland.