Irish unity is a dead political issue for at least a generation, an exclusive Belfast Telegraph poll has revealed.
The findings suggest that for the vast majority of people here, the border issue — which has dominated politics here for decades — has now been settled.
Only 7% of voters in Northern Ireland would vote to remove the border this year.
Even when asked if they would vote to remove it in 20 years time the figure increases only to 32%.
Significantly, the proportion of the Catholic population who favour unity now or in 20 years is also a minority — just 48%.
The findings come from a major new survey commissioned by the Belfast Telegraph and carried out by our polling partners LucidTalk, who are members of the British Polling Council (BPC).
The poll sheds new light on the long-standing question of nationhood in Northern Ireland and provides a fascinating snapshot of public opinion at a key time in our political history.
People were asked: “If a border referendum was held within the next year how would you vote?”. They were given the options “Yes”, “Yes, in 20 years”, “No, keep Northern Ireland” and “No opinion”.
This allowed us to distinguish support for unity as an immediate political priority and as a longer term ideal.
Protestants were overwhelmingly against Irish unity, but the Catholic population was more divided. Just 7% of Catholics would vote for it now and a further 41% would opt for it in 20 years’ time, 48% in all.
The proportion of Catholics offering no opinion on the issue (14%) mirrored the percentage in the population as a whole.
This was a low opt-out rate compared to other questions.
If these ‘don’t knows’ are ignored, 63% of people, including 44% of Catholics, want Northern Ireland to remain a separate entity even after 2032.
Across all social classes and amongst both men and women, support for removing the border now is below 11% in every category.
It is favoured as a longer-term option, in 2032, by 48% of Catholics, 4% of Protestants and 36% of people who say they are neither Catholic or Protestant.
It is often argued by commentators and politicians that if the Catholic population ever replaces Protestants as the majority then Irish unity will inevitably follow.
This assumption tribalised local politics for most of Northern Ireland’s history.
Our figures indicate that this ‘sectarian headcount’ model is no longer entirely valid.
Instead, a substantial minority of Catholics and an overwhelming majority of Protestants (96%) favour the status quo.
This means that any dramatic change in Northern Ireland’s constitutional status based on a demographic change is at best a remote possibility.
Another study, published by the Community Relations Council in February, found that Catholics are already the majority population for people under the age of 30.
Despite this, our survey shows that support for Irish unity is marginally lower in the 18-24 year old group — 36% compared to 37% in the population as a whole.
Support for unity is slightly higher amongst those aged 45-64 (38%) where Protestants are still in the majority.
The overall message is that support for Irish unity does not rise in line with the Catholic proportion of the population as had been long predicted.
Further analysis of the results suggests that the bulk of Catholics who want to remain within the UK do not currently vote — though some support the SDLP, Alliance, the Greens or one of the unionist parties.
Under the Good Friday Agreement, a border referendum can be held once every seven years.
Irish unity occurs if is backed by a majority in both Northern Ireland and in the Irish Republic voting separately.
The Secretary of State can call a referendum at any time when he thinks a change is likely to be endorsed. On the present showing he would have little grounds to do so.
The findings confirm the broad trend in other recent polls carried out by the province’s universities.
They show that support for Irish unity has been decreasing since 2006, despite a steady rise in the Sinn Fein vote.
For full statistics analysis visit Lucid talk