Belfast Telegraph

Debate on united Ireland may only serve to deepen our divisions

We're too polarised and too entrenched to argue rationally

By Liam Clarke

On the face of it support for Irish unity is still hopelessly low but Sinn Fein will take comfort from the large numbers who back their demand for a referendum on the subject.

When we leave out the 'don't knows', most people with an opinion (56%) back the idea. Within this, there are a lot of people who would simply welcome the debate, though they either oppose a united Ireland or aren't sure.

A Catholic surveyed by LucidTalk said: "I'm for the UK at the moment, but let's have a debate and referendum about all relationships within these islands."

Tellingly, there is majority support for a poll among the young and some unionists are tempted to have one so that they can win it. This was a view once expressed by Arlene Foster of the DUP.

There are even a few floating voters.

"I would vote 'no' at the moment but may change my mind if I knew what type of united Ireland it would be," one Protestant said.

However, majority support for a referendum doesn't give grounds for the Secretary of State to call one under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. She can only do that if she believes there is a likelihood that the vote would change the status quo.

There is no sign of that in our results with just over one in 20 people prepared to vote for unity in the short term and under a quarter wanting it in 20 years.

However, Bill White of LucidTalk points out that two years before the Scottish referendum the polls were saying 70% (excluding undecideds) would oppose separatism. Here opposition to Irish unity by the same measure is only 59.8%.

Sinn Fein can argue that once the debate opens up things might change here as they did in Scotland. Whether that amounts to a likelihood of a yes vote is another matter. In Northern Ireland the signs are that the opinions are far more firmly held and slower to change than in Scotland.

Identity is polarising into British and Irish camps, not weakening.

The likelihood is that a debate on Irish unity would deepen divisions rather than encourage a rational economic debate of the type we saw in Scotland.

A border poll is a stark choice. Its hard edges can't be blurred by creative ambiguity as the Good Friday Agreement was. Yet when we had a referendum on the agreement it was accompanied by considerable violence and upheaval.

What can no longer be said, though, is that we will never have a border poll.

There is considerable support for it that will have to be monitored in the future to see how it develops.

Belfast Telegraph

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