Belfast Telegraph

35% of English public want Northern Ireland to remain in UK and many think Irish politics 'complicated and mysterious,' poll suggests

The UK's departure from the EU has brought forward a discussion on Irish unity.
The UK's departure from the EU has brought forward a discussion on Irish unity.
Jonathan Bell

By Jonathan Bell

Just over a third of the English public want Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, and many have no grasp on what was happening in local politics with them considering it "complicated and even mysterious," new polling suggests.

The findings were part of a latest series of polls and focus groups by Lord Ashcroft who surveyed English voters on their views on the Union in the light of the ongoing Brexit turbulence.

As well as 35% saying NI should remain in the UK, 13% said the country should no longer be part of it and 10% said they did not know.

Some 43% said they did not have a view and it was for the people of NI to decide - and almost 60% of those said they did not mind either way which way the people voted.

Former Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft has been a major independent public pollster of British political opinion since 2010.

In his latest poll he found few people in England had any grasp of the political landscape in Northern Ireland.

"Apart from the observation that 'the religious element is very strong'," said Lord Ashcroft, "very few had any grasp of the dynamics of Northern Irish politics, which seem complicated and even mysterious to many people.

"Some were not even aware that Northern Ireland’s long-term place in the Union was even an issue, and for others the question seemed less to do with self-determination, as in Scotland, than with identity.

He said findings from focus groups indicated that while unionists “probably feel much like us, that they’re part of us”, it was natural that others should feel that “Ireland is their own country. There’s water separating England and Ireland. So if Northern Ireland became part of Ireland, that’s Ireland, one whole country".

Many, however, said they did not want to see the break up of the Union, although they acknowledged it was not up for them to decide. They said they felt the UK would be weakened if it were to break up with many feeling there was "something important" about the current constitutional arrangements.

“We’re known as the four countries together worldwide. The Royal Family, bringing all of us together – people see us as one," was a common viewpoint found.

“It’s like a family. You have dysfunctional families but you still come together,” was another.

“Historically, worldwide, the UK has been a leading force in a lot of areas. If it was all divided up I don’t think we would have the same standing in the world,” was another opinion among those surveyed.

The polling found that while leave voters would be reluctant, they recognised both Scotland and Northern Ireland had voted to remain in the EU and if it was a choice between the UK remaining  as it was or Brexit and the break up of the UK, they would chose Brexit.

In the poll, 28% of English voters felt Brexit made Irish unification more likely, with 27% saying it made no difference and 38% saying they didn't know.

Asked about Scottish independence, 43% said it was more likely than not.

“You’d have to change the flag and everything. It wouldn’t be the United Kingdom any more,” was one view found.

“We’re proud of our little nation and I don’t want bits breaking off. I want people to remember us as a dynamic little nation that fought against major powers and beat them. And it’s strength in numbers and historically what we’re known for. I’d rather we all stay together," was another view coming out of the focus groups.

Lord Ashcroft added: "This does not reflect a callous disregard for the Union but a pragmatic view that all parts of the UK had the right of self-determination."

The survey also asked about Northern Ireland having different arrangements to the rest of the UK in order to avoid a hardening of the border.

A third - 34% - said that while it would not be ideal to have some EU laws and regulations apply, they felt it an acceptable compromise. Twenty-seven percent said it would be "completely unacceptable" and 12% thinking it "perfectly acceptable".

Elsewhere many English voters think Scotland and Northern Ireland benefit more from being in the UK than England and Wales.

This belief was found particularly prevalent among those who voted leave in the EU referendum.

Many thought they paid for Scottish benefits such as free prescriptions and university places while they did not get the same benefits in return. This was found to particularly rankle the English public when they perceived the Scottish as rejecting their British identity and pushing for independence.

The same, however, was not thought to apply for Northern Ireland, "for three main reasons," Lord Ashcroft said in his analysis.

"People feel the province is much less able to support itself financially than Scotland, there was no perception that people there enjoyed benefits that were not available in England, and there was little awareness of a concerted movement to take Northern Ireland out of the UK or “moaning” about the English while enjoying their apparent largesse."

The findings come off the back of a poll in September which found just over half of people in Northern Ireland would vote for Irish unification if there was a border poll.

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