Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: Poll shows support for Northern Ireland staying in UK running at twice that for united Ireland ... so why should unionists be concerned?

Ipsos MORI survey won't set off the panic alarms, but neither can it be allowed to breed complacency, writes Alex Kane

A recent poll in Great Britain was in favour of keeping the Union, but more needs to be done to sustain it
A recent poll in Great Britain was in favour of keeping the Union, but more needs to be done to sustain it
Steve Aiken of the UUP
Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP
Alex Kane

By Alex Kane

An Ipsos MORI poll, published last week and based on answers gathered from 1,084 adults aged 16-75 across Great Britain between February 22 and 26, suggested that just over a third of the British public wanted Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom.

The question asked was: "If there were to be a referendum in Northern Ireland on its future, would you personally prefer NI to choose to Stay in the UK or Leave the UK and join the Republic of Ireland?" Some 36% preferred Stay, 19% Leave, 9% didn't know and 36% "don't mind either way".

To be honest, those figures surprised me. Fair enough, 36% is hardly a thumping please-stay-with-us endorsement from pan-UK unionists across Great Britain, but set against just 19% in favour of Irish unity, it's not bad at all.

And while 36% not minding "either way" what choice we make may look like a triumph for we-couldn't-care-less-about-you apathy, it also suggests that unionism here (which has always been different to unionism outside Northern Ireland) doesn't raise any particular ire among our fellow citizens.

Given the huge profile that the DUP has earned as a consequence of its Confidence and Supply Agreement with the Government - along with its role in scuppering a number of possible deals in a series of votes in the House of Commons - I wouldn't have been surprised if the margins between Stay in the UK and Irish unity had been much closer.

And given the amount of particularly hostile coverage the DUP has attracted from elements from both mainstream and social media, as well as from sites that champion Remain, it strikes me as noteworthy that more damage doesn't seem to have been done to the case for Northern Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom.

The UUP's Steve Aiken responded to the poll by saying, "There is no marked call for the end of the Union." He is right. But then he added, "There is also no room for complacency. The DUP's association with the ultra wing of the Tory party and the almost daily resorting to undiplomatic language by the ERG (European Research Group) wing of their party isn't doing unionism any favours."

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Aiken may have a point. Other polls have suggested that there is a willingness among elements of both Remain and Leave to jettison the Union if the particular interests of the DUP and Northern Ireland unionism are a hindrance to their final goals (either not leaving the EU at all, or leaving even with a deal that results in Northern Ireland being treated differently).

Interestingly, this latest poll suggests that those who voted Remain were more likely (23%) to want Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom than those who voted Leave (15%).

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson took a slightly broader view: "The poll shows clearly that support for Northern Ireland remaining within the Union is twice that expressed for a united Ireland. Arlene Foster has outlined the need to put forward a positive case for the Union and there is a need for unionists to ensure this case is made right across the United Kingdom."

Donaldson's response is, I think, an indication that, while he acknowledges that this poll shouldn't set off the panic alarm for unionists in Northern Ireland, nor should it be taken as a justification for the usual sort of sanguine, it'll-be-all-right-on-the-night response we have come to expect.

In other words, he accepts that the 36% saying they "don't mind" either way if the Union is broken is something that should concern, albeit not scare, unionists in Northern Ireland.

During the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, there was a clear majority among the public in the rest of the UK that hoped that Scotland would choose to stay. So, it should probably worry Northern Ireland unionists that, in the words of Roger Mortimore, professor of public opinion and political analysis at King's College London, "Many fewer Britons, it seems, would mind if Northern Ireland decided to leave the Union."

It seems to be less of a case of telling us to get out and more of a case of telling us that no obstacles will be put in our way if we decide to go.

In essence, that has been the policy of successive governments as well. The "constitutional guarantee" says that Northern Ireland will remain within the UK until a local majority decides otherwise.

The border poll provision in the Belfast Agreement pushed the door a little wider, with the promise of a referendum if the Secretary of State thinks it "likely" (albeit with no specific details of how "likely" is defined) that the pro-Union side would lose.

But since October 1972 - when a Green Paper set out the constitutional guarantee in its present form - there has been very little evidence that any UK government or Prime Minister is prepared to prioritise the Union over everything else; preferring, instead, to present themselves as impartial brokers between the two sides.

Yet, Theresa May was the latest PM to talk about the importance of the Union: indeed, I think she may have been the one who first used the phrase "precious Union".

But she introduced a backstop proposal which she knew had the potential to refashion the dynamics of the Union and diminish the constitutional link between GB and Northern Ireland. Her argument - one which seems to be supported by a majority of MPs - is that the "constitutional guarantee" is the key to the Union.

By that logic, the backstop is not, in and of itself, an existential threat to the Union; since the Union can only end if a majority in Northern Ireland votes to end it. But if the backstop leads to Northern Ireland being treated significantly different to the rest of the UK, then it is that difference which diminishes the Union and changes the nature and purpose of the constitutional guarantee.

Northern Ireland's future is not going to be determined by an opinion poll in GB, or by a UK-wide referendum. It will be determined in Northern Ireland.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is right when he says that there is a "need to put forward a positive case for the Union and there is a need for unionists to ensure this case is made right across the UK".

But it isn't just enough to keep repeating that particular mantra.

Nor is it enough to keep on saying that there is no poll indicating a majority for Irish unity anytime soon.

The primary task of political/electoral unionism is to sustain a pro-Union majority in Northern Ireland. Without that majority, unionism has no role and no future.

Which means that unionists finally have to realise that membership of that majority should also be open and welcoming to tens of thousands who presently regard it as cold, insular, exclusive and relentlessly opposed to their moral values and lifestyles.

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