A major survey by Northern Ireland’s two universities has found support for a united Ireland at an all-time low.
The DUP has welcomed the findings of the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey which reported that just 16% were in favour of unification.
The survey, which was conducted between October and December last year, found just 33% of Catholics wanted Irish unity on the long term. More than half of Catholics said they would prefer to stay in the UK, a view shared by 90% of Protestants.
The survey is conducted annually by Ark, a joint project by Queen’s University and the University of Ulster, for the Northern Ireland Social and Political Archive. Over the years it has shown high and rising Catholic support for the Union coupled with distrust of unionist parties.
In 2005 the figure was 25% of Catholics wishing to remain in the UK and there had been a similar figure for many years before that. However, very few Catholics defined themselves as unionists or were prepared to vote for a unionist party. Despite 52% favouring the Union in the current survey, only 1% was prepared to vote for the DUP and 1% for the UUP.
By contrast, only 1% of Protestants said they would favour a united Ireland. However, 82% said they could accept it with some reluctance if it came about after a democratic vote.
East Belfast DUP MLA Robin Newton said: “For many years, political nationalism has relied upon what is politely termed ‘demographic change’ to deliver their goal of a united Ireland. It is clear that a figure of 73% of people favouring the United Kingdom must include people who are not from a Protestant community background.”
The poll also showed increasing optimism about community relations with 62% of people thinking they had improved over the past five years and 52% believing they would continue to improve over the next five years. Only 5% thought they would get worse.
The survey threw up some curious answers on voting intentions. It found that DUP support was 18%, well below the 38% the party secured in last month’s Assembly elections.
By contrast the UUP scored 16% in both the poll and the actual election. On the nationalist side the SDLP, on 17%, was comfortably ahead of Sinn Fein’s 11%. In the election the roles were reversed with Sinn Fein scoring 29% and the SDLP 14%.
One explanation may be that the poll covers both voters and non-voters.
It may also be possible that some people are more reluctant to tell researchers that they vote for the DUP or Sinn Fein than the UUP or SDLP as they may wish to appear more moderate to a stranger.
In the past Ark has said it believes that people surveyed have also been reluctant to give entirely accurate information on issues like income, voting intentions or their sexual orientation.
Fieldwork for the 2010 survey was carried out between October 1, 2010 and December 18, 2010. 1,205 adults were interviewed.