Belfast Telegraph

Irish border poll: Sinn Fein need to be careful plus how would Naomi Long and Steven Agnew vote?

The Irish border
The Irish border

By Bill White

As expected there has been a fair amount of comment and controversy regarding our recent October 2017 Northern Ireland Tracker poll which covered the matter of the border and if there should be a poll.

The main results from the poll questions came out: (a) Should there be a border poll: 47% Yes within five years, 15% yes within 10 years, and (b) What way would you vote in a poll?: 55% for NI in UK, 34% for NI joining Ireland as one country, with 10% undecided.

Following Leo Vardakar's comments we did also ask about what the so-called winning post should be in such a referendum and that came out firmly in favour of the 50%+1 score.

Not surprisingly both sides in this argument spun the results to their own advantage. This spinning is normal with poll results, and frankly wasn’t done incorrectly or inaccurately as poll results can be open to many different interpretations.

From the unionist side, some were critical of the results implying that in a ‘real-life’ referendum the pro-union vote would be well over 60%. I would ask where do they get this idea from?

Let’s look back and compare to the last NI border poll referendum in 1973 when 57.5% of the NI electorate voted for NI to stay in the UK – and our current poll figure comes in at 55%.

Admittedly the nationalist/republican parties took a policy of abstention in the 1973 referendum, but even so 57.5% down to 55% is not much of a change in 44 years. Plus, what about the large demographic changes that have taken place in that time – have unionists not noticed these?

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Just one example. In 1973 South Belfast had a unionist MP with 70% of the vote – at the 2017 election the total unionist vote in South Belfast was 34.5%. That’s quite a drop, and that’s only one NI constituency – similar patterns emerge in other constituencies.

On the nationalist/republican side they homed in on the poll age-group analysis which showed that the pro-united Ireland (UI) support was the largest block in the under 45 age-group. This of course is a good sign for the pro-UI camp as it demonstrates that the age demographics are running in their favour, with a higher proportion of younger people being pro-UI compared to older people.

The key question is how the Alliance/Green/Others voter block would vote in any NI border poll. Let’s face it, you don’t need a poll to tell you how Michelle O’Neill or Arlene Foster would vote in any border referendum – and that would be reflected with the vast majority of their respective party’s supporters as well.

But how would Naomi Long and Steven Agnew vote, and in particular the 90,000 voters that the Alliance/Green/ Independents block regularly gets at NI Assembly elections?

We know that currently it’s the nationalist/republican side of the argument that is pushing for a border poll – particularly Sinn Fein. However, Sinn Fein need to be careful as they may get what they ask for and they need to score over 40% in any such referendum for the ‘pro United Ireland’ side, for that cause to have any hope of surviving with credibility.

Put it this way, if the pro-union side (that is NI in UK) scores 60-70% in a border poll that would effectively kill off the argument for a generation, and remove any possibility of another referendum for many years. People say 'ah but the argument is still going on in Scotland'. Yes it is, but their referendum result was 55% to 45%, and in independence referendum terms this is a pretty close result. It’s this sort of narrow result that Sinn Fein may be strategically aiming at as a way of keeping the argument going!

Basically they can cope with a loss, just as long as they get it narrow enough so that they can keep the argument and discussion going.

So there’s risks for all sides in a border referendum. You can have all the polling and market research in the world, but when you go to the electorate there’s always the unknown that the result may not turn out to be what was expected. The last two electoral events in the UK were the 2016 EU Referendum and this year’s Westminster election – go and ask David Cameron and Theresa May did those produce the expected results?

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