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Eilis O'Hanlon

No shortage of giddy predictions united Ireland just around corner... but when anyone actually bothers to ask NI people what they think, the results don't back it up

Eilis O'Hanlon

Economic and Social Research Council report presents an open goal to those who want Northern Ireland to stay part of the UK, writes Eilis O'Hanlon


A total of 29% would support Irish unity but 52% would back remaining in the UK if a referendum was held imminently

A total of 29% would support Irish unity but 52% would back remaining in the UK if a referendum was held imminently

A total of 29% would support Irish unity but 52% would back remaining in the UK if a referendum was held imminently

The formation of a new government in Dublin looks as far away as ever, but Sinn Fein always keeps its eye on the long game and continues to insist that its own success in topping the poll at the recent general election represents an irresistible mandate for a border poll, conveniently forgetting that Laois and Limerick don't actually matter when the only criteria for calling a vote on Irish unity is if the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland deems it to have a fair chance of leading to a constitutional change.

In that regard, the British Government's resistance to Sinn Fein's demand will only be strengthened by the latest social market research report into December's Westminster election, which is published today.

The report, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council on behalf of academics from four universities, including Queen's, is like Eurovision for political nerds. They'll be poring over the data for months to come.

One of the most interesting things to emerge from the survey is that the number of people who "strongly disagree" with same-sex marriage being made legal in Northern Ireland is under 7%, challenging the lazy narrative that people here are out of step with more liberal public opinion in other parts of Britain and Ireland.

Even adding on the 17% of people who disagree less strongly with same-sex marriage, the total figure is still far below the near 38% of people in the Irish Republic who voted against it in the 2015 referendum.

It seems like we're the ones who should be giving them lectures on equality and tolerance, rather than the other way round.

The figure which will grab most attention, of course, is the one about Irish unity, because everything always come back to that in the end.

The study doesn't make easy reading for nationalists, showing as it does that only 28.6% of people who voted in the general election before Christmas would support a united Ireland if a border poll was held tomorrow, with 52.3% expressing a wish to remain part of the UK.

And that was before the election in Dublin gave Sinn Fein a leg up towards power. Any pro-Remain unionists who might have been flirting with the idea of voting for a united Ireland in order to keep a toehold in the EU will have been duly scared off.

It's a strange one.

There have been increasingly giddy predictions from politicians, academics and journalists in recent years that a united Ireland is just around the corner; but time and again, when anyone actually bothers to ask people in Northern Ireland what they think, the results don't back it up.

Republicans will no doubt point to the fact that support for a UK is "only" 52 and a bit per cent, which suggests it could theoretically dip below the 50% mark on a small swing, but that would be to clutch at straws.

Even if Sinn Fein was able to win over every single one of those who professed not to know how they'd vote, or who refused to answer - a highly unlikely chain of events - they'd still fall short.

They can't even take comfort from the fact that those who took part in this survey were asked how they'd vote if a border poll was held tomorrow, because they were also asked what they believed the long-term status of Northern Ireland should be and the number who expected Irish unity in any foreseeable future actually went down fractionally.

That's probably why Sinn Fein is so desperate to see the creation of a so-called Citizens' Assembly on Irish unity, in the hope that endlessly talking about the nuts and bolts of a united Ireland will, over time, break down resistance to the idea; but what the survey surely proves is that peace and power-sharing have had unforeseen consequences that may make the dream of a united Ireland less achievable as long as that peace and power-sharing continue, because most people, not unreasonably, want peace and power sharing more than they want radical change.

People's sense of identity is much less rigid than it was for most of Northern Ireland's history.

Now the number who think of themselves as British (33.5%) may be lower than the number who would regard themselves as Irish (34.6%), but what makes things interesting is those who see themselves as Northern Irish, which now stands at 23%.

An identity which is neither British nor Irish, but a bit of both, mixed together with something unique to the place where you live, makes sense in a context where the UK and Irish Republic feel like equally imperfect answers.

It's also the one identity which studies consistently show that Protestants and Catholics can comfortably share, while not affecting their political aspirations, and, while not new, it's definitely on the rise, not least among what one paper published a few years ago by the British Psychological Society defined as "the young, the educated, and the middle-class".

A Northern Irish identity was, the authors said, "particularly widely used by well-educated young Protestants".

Taken in the round, this ticker-tape parade of up-to-date statistical evidence should present an open goal to those who want Northern Ireland to stay part of the UK.

All they need to do is make the home place (to borrow Seamus Mallon's phrase) work for everybody. How many more times does that message need to be rammed home?

What the social attitudes survey published today proves more than anything is that the future will be decided, not by the 28.4% of people who say they're unionists, or the 24.6% who say they're nationalists, but the whopping 39.6% who say they're neither.

This is the political space in which a huge number of people now find themselves. Ideologues make a lot of noise, but there are less of them than it sometimes seems.

Most people can't be put into boxes.

They have a mixed bag of aspirations and identities that shift over time.

Where they all coalesced to varying degrees in this survey was around common sense opinions, such as that there should be no amnesty for those who carried out acts of violence in the past and that only innocent people killed during the Troubles can rightly be regarded as victims, both of which propositions command strong support among the middle ground.

They're probably also the same ones who told the survey that they felt "closer to the moon" than they do to any of the parties which stood for election in December.

If there is an authentic voice of Northern Ireland, that's surely it.

Belfast Telegraph