Perhaps the most striking finding in the Belfast Telegraph poll is the majority of Catholics who say they would vote to leave the UK and become part of a united Ireland.
That figure — at 69% rising to more than three-quarters among younger Catholics — is surprising in that it is higher than most opinion poll findings over the years. It seems to show the Catholic aspiration for unity is stronger than ever.
This is in spite of advances within Northern Ireland which have put their representatives, Sinn Fein and the SDLP, into government at Stormont. It is also in spite of the severe economic setbacks which have seen the Republic of Ireland's former prosperity replaced by stringent belt-tightening.
It is true a quarter of Catholic respondents say they would vote to remain in the UK, a figure that goes up among those aged 65 and over. Perhaps that reflects a certain anxiety about their pensions in uncertain times. It is also true a majority of Catholics think the south's economic difficulties have made a united Ireland less likely. Nonetheless, the figure of 69% who would vote for departure from the UK will generate debate. The poll's findings may indicate that many agree with the recent Sinn Fein formulation that the Good Friday Agreement is an accommodation, not a settlement. The sense which emerges from between the lines of the poll is that many Catholics regard the Assembly as worthwhile, but not permanent. Even before the Assembly many reforms were put in place over decades, making changes so far-reaching that nationalist claims of anti-Catholic discrimination — once frequent — are now rare.
Yet according to the poll, economic, social and political betterment has not been accompanied by any lessening of the strength of national allegiance among either Catholics or Protestants. Furthermore, very few on either side seem to deviate from the nationality which they inherit, along with their religion at birth. Just 8% of Catholics describe themselves as British while just 4% of Protestants see themselves as Irish.
Those most attached to their Britishness are older Protestants who in the poll achieved rare statistical unanimity, a full 100% of them stressing its importance to them.
That remarkable result is however surpassed in political significance by the figure of 69% of Catholics who would vote for unity.
A straw poll of a few nationalists — as highly unscientific as the opinion poll is scientific — produced answers which highlighted both a growth in confidence and a fall in violence. One professional woman, a nationalist who has a distaste for republicanism, said: “I always thought the number in favour of unity was artificially low and that was because people thought it could only come about with blood and violence.’’ A republican said: “There's greater confidence among most nationalists in expressing their identity of Irishness.”
A west Belfast businessman was in agreement, saying in spite of the southern recession, northern nationalists had much pride in Irishness and were more willing to express it. “They are now less inhibited — you can aspire without fear of violence.”
The peace process has brought a much less violence and much more politics. But the telling snapshot provided by this poll is that, while there is much more compromise, the underlying differing allegiances are much what they always were.
As for the future, a statistical coincidence resulted when people were asked where they thought Northern Ireland would be in 2021.
A majority of Catholics thought it would be in a united Ireland while a majority of Protestants thought it would still be in the UK. But when all the totals were added up the outcome, at 42% for each, was a draw. Once again there was no real sense of agreement; but for once there was, entirely accidentally, some semblance of balance.