The main findings of last month’s big Irish Times all-island opinion poll on Irish unity should not have surprised any knowledgeable observer of politics in the two jurisdictions, although they certainly will have disappointed Sinn Féin and the passionately nationalist partisans of the Ireland’s Future campaign.
In answer to the main question – ‘If there was a referendum asking people whether they want Northern Ireland to remain in the UK or to unify with the Republic, how would you vote?’ – 50% of people in Northern Ireland said they would vote to stay in the UK, compared to 27% who said they would vote for unity. There was a relatively high proportion of ‘don’t knows’ (19%), although even if every single one of those swung in favour of unity, the pro-union side would still win.
In striking contrast two thirds (66%) of people in the Republic opted for unity. I would guess that if one had held such an opinion poll at any time over the past 50 years, the percentages would have been broadly similar.
However there is agreement on one thing: majorities in both jurisdictions believe that a Border poll should be held, with voters in the Republic more likely to favour a vote in the next five years, while a majority in the North want such a poll in the next 10 years. Northern nationalists and unionists have different motivations here. The former are convinced that even if they don’t win the first such poll, demographic change going in their direction means they will eventually succeed. The significant minority of unionists who favour such a poll probably want the toxic (for them) question of unity put to bed for the foreseeable future.
But how deep is the commitment to unity among people in the South? The answer is: not very deep, whether it is in terms of symbolism, security, economics or public services. Large numbers of voters in the Republic become less likely to vote for a united Ireland if that entity has a new flag and anthem. Nearly half of those polled (47–48%) said they would be “less likely” to vote for unity if it meant a change of flag or anthem. An extraordinary 54% said the symbolic gesture of re-joining the Commonwealth would make them less likely to support a united Ireland.
Among participants in the accompanying southern focus groups, organised by the two heavyweight political scientists who oversaw the poll, Brendan O’Leary of the University of Pennsylvania and John Garry of Queen’s University Belfast, “there was a sense of surprise, shock and some distaste that such changes – on the flag, anthem, Commonwealth and political institutions – could happen. Participants essentially assumed that in a united Ireland, the North would be absorbed or assimilated, with little need for change down south.” And this was among the ‘undecided’ voters!
The largest number of those polled in the Republic (66%) chose “whether a united Ireland would be peaceful” as the issue “voters would need to know about to make an informed decision on Irish unity”(in the more violence-hardened North this was only 38%). Possible loyalist violence before a Border poll, not surprisingly, was an important disincentive. 42% of southern respondents said “significant loyalist paramilitary violence before the referendums” would make them less likely to vote for a united Ireland.
Equally unsurprisingly, a unity which would lead to respondents being £3,500/€4,000 a year worse off would make 48% of people in the Republic (51% in Northern Ireland) less likely to vote for that outcome. The health service would be another game-changer: 50% of northerners would be more likely to vote for unity if a united Ireland were to adopt an NHS-type health system rather than the Republic’s strange two-tier version (although this ignores the major difficulties – including the longest waiting lists in the UK – now affecting the Northern Ireland system).
Agreement on the appearance of a united Ireland
One thing those polled North and South agree on is that the detail of what a united Ireland would look like should be worked out in advance of any Border poll. This extremely complex question is made even more difficult by the understandable reluctance of political unionism to become involved in this debate; one that cannot be inclusive without their input. However large majorities in both jurisdictions (69% in the North; 59% in the South) agreed with the “work it out in advance” option. The alternative proposed was a referendum on the principle of unity, which would be followed, if successful, by a constitutional convention to work out the detail (in which unionists, now a sixth of the population of the island, would be a small minority).
Interestingly, one of the very few questions Northern Catholic and Protestants were agreed on was whether the type of a united Ireland should be decided before or after referendums. 72% of Catholics and 71% of Protestants agreed that it should be decided before.
Those polled were also asked whether they would prefer an ‘integrated’ united Ireland – with Northern Ireland no longer existing as a political unit and all legislative and government decisions made in Dublin – or the North continuing as a devolved region, much as it is at present, but with Dublin rather than London as the overseeing authority. Again the results were unsurprising: in the Republic the “strong support” of the majority (52%) was for the integrated model, while 70% of Northern Protestants strongly opposed this. In the North the relatively “strong support” (34% overall; 37% among Protestants) was for the devolved model, with 39% of respondents in the South indicating “strong opposition.”
If there was a referendum asking people whether they want Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom or to unify with the Republic of Ireland, how would you vote in that referendum?
|Stay in the UK||16%||50%||21%||35%||79%|
|Unify with the RoI||66%||27%||55%||25%||4%|
|Would not vote||5%||5%||3%||14%||5%|
Two types of United Ireland
(A) Integrated United Ireland
Northern Ireland would no longer exist as a political unit, and decisions would be made by an all-island parliament and government in Dublin
|No strong view||24%||26%||33%||28%||19%|
(B) Devolved United Ireland
Northern Ireland would continue to exist as a political unit, but as a devolved unit within a united Ireland; Northern Ireland would keep its own Assembly and power-sharing executive, and power over policy areas such as health, education and policing
|No strong view||31%||27%||29%||25%||26%|
A key problem with the devolution model is that with the devolved political institutions in the North currently suspended (and rarely working well even at the best of times), these institutions would need to be fixed before any possible devolution in a united Ireland. On the other hand, participants in the northern focus groups organised by O’Leary and Garry “agreed that the integrated model was much more likely than the devolved model to lead to conflict.”
Even this short glimpse into the poll’s findings shows how fiendishly complex the process of Border polls is going to be. That shrewd (if sometimes conservative) analyst, Irish Times political editor Pat Leahy, believes that “the prospect of a Border poll in Northern Ireland voting for a united Ireland is something that is a long way into the future, if indeed it happens at all.”
However Unionists should not be too smug about the findings. Unequivocal though they are for the moment, the rising number of Catholics in the North mean that they are not set in stone, even if – in Leahy’s phrase – “the widespread predictions of a united Ireland by the end of the decade look somewhat fantastical.” Also the whole issue of Irish unity is now a live part of political discourse on this island in a way it was not a few short years ago (before the 2016 Brexit vote). This major poll is part of that expanding discourse.
Leahy concluded: “If the arguments for unity are to be won, it seems they will be won not with windy rhetoric, but with worked-out and practical plans and probably over a long period of time. In the absence of reassurances that things will change for the better rather than the worse, politically and personally, voters are likely to follow their conservative instincts to retain the status quo. In addition, many voters in the South would have to be persuaded to persuade northerners about unity through changes and concessions – something they are disinclined to do.”
His final point is a telling one: the poll showed that “the drum beating for unity is not winning over the growing and likely decisive section of the population of Northern Ireland – the middle ground. It is through them that the path to a united Ireland – if it is ever to happen – will run.”
1. The twin opinion polls, along with focus groups, were carried out for the Irish Times and the ARINS project (Analysing and Researching Ireland North and South), a joint initiative of the Royal Irish Academy and the University of Notre Dame.