Parties and media should stick to facts in debate over Irish unity
Opinion polls are nearly always controversial, and opinion polls on Irish unity are even more so. Even so, the discussion around the latest results of another Northern Ireland border poll survey among some commentators on mainstream and social media was eye-catching.
Nearly everyone quoted only part of the poll results (the part they liked), with headlines such as ‘Only 30% support united Ireland’ right through to ‘Less than 50% in Northern Ireland support NI remaining in the UK’, and ‘55% in NI now support a united Ireland or could be thinking about it’.
The results for the main border poll question from this month’s poll (carried out by University of Liverpool for the Irish News) were 45% in favour of Northern Ireland staying in the UK, 30% for a united Ireland, and 25% who didn’t know or were unsure.
It perhaps should be noted, though, that this recent poll didn’t really include a direct border poll question, as defined and used by the other polls. It used a variation of the border poll question, but then again, this is quite common as nearly all the polls use different wording for this question.
There is a fair chance that this is the first time you have seen all of these results as it was a rarity to see all of them presented in one place.
In fact, someone even tried to involve LucidTalk in a comparison with this recent poll by quoting only the pro-united Ireland scores from a LucidTalk poll that was carried out 18 months ago.
Of course, all of these are silly and inaccurate spins on the results.
The full results from any poll should always be reported in the media in a way that complies with the professional regulations — i.e. those specified by Ipso (Independent Press Standards Organisation) and Impress. For a border poll, obviously the three key poll results are Northern Ireland remaining in the UK, pro-Irish unity, and the don’t know/unsures.
The idea behind these Ipso and Impress rules for reporting poll results is to ensure the audience gets a balanced and full view of what the poll is actually saying, so they can make their own judgment based on all the facts.
After all, football results are not reported by stating only one part of the results. When Manchester City played Liverpool on April 10, the result wasn’t announced by saying “Manchester City, two” and stopping there. Why? Because that doesn’t tell us anything as Liverpool could have scored three or one, or the two they did that day.
Now in terms of the wider point regarding the differences between the various polls and surveys on the border poll issue, there always are, and there always will be, differences, especially if the polls are run at different times and use differently worded poll questions and different polling methods.
However, there is one important border poll result that (nearly) all the Northern Ireland polls and surveys have agreed on, at least up to now, and that is support for Northern Ireland to remain in the UK.
All polls/surveys over the past three to four years have this key status quo result at around 50%, give or take a few percentage points either way. This includes from the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, QUB, LucidTalk, the University of Liverpool post-2019 election survey, digital publisher The Detail, Savanta-Comres and the Lord Ashcroft polls.
It should be noted, though, that there have now been a couple of polls in the last 12 months that have disagreed with this — Kantar (for the Belfast Telegraph last May), which had support for Northern Ireland to remain in the UK at 44%, and now this most recent poll, which had the pro-UK union result at 45%.
This score is worth watching in the polls because unionism needs to get that score up from 50% (which in itself is quite low), and not allow it to start drifting down towards 40%.
The remaining 50% to 55% varies widely in the polls between pro-united Ireland and the don’t knows. This isn’t that surprising as a united Ireland is still the unknown, and even fervent republicans admit it has yet to be defined in terms of its structure and how it would work.
So, with the various unionist and nationalist groups spinning, exaggerating and sometimes turning poll results upside down, it is important that journalists, commentators and poll companies follow their own professional standards in terms of balanced reporting.
Polls are meant to inform the public regarding current opinion. They are useful as long as the poll results are presented and interpreted the right way, and in the right context. This is particularly important with a hotly debated issue like the border question.
Bill White is managing director of the Belfast polling and market research company LucidTalk. You can follow LucidTalk on Twitter: @LucidTalk