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An antidote to recent excitable predictions of Irish unity, but there are signs of change

Jon Tonge


A Sinn Fein poster calling for Irish unity on the N3 road outside Co Cavan near the border with Northern Ireland (Brian Lawless/PA)

A Sinn Fein poster calling for Irish unity on the N3 road outside Co Cavan near the border with Northern Ireland (Brian Lawless/PA)

PA Wire/PA Images

A Sinn Fein poster calling for Irish unity on the N3 road outside Co Cavan near the border with Northern Ireland (Brian Lawless/PA)

Surveys of public opinion lead to cherry-picking of the results according to political preferences. Let me save partisans the bother and view the study from differing perspectives.

The most important finding is on the likely outcome of a border poll, given that, via the Good Friday Agreement, public opinion informs whether the Secretary of State calls one.

The survey indicates that republicans still have much work to do to persuade most voters to back Irish unity.

Unionists might be relieved by the raw figures. That only 29% of respondents say they would vote for a united Ireland in a border poll tomorrow, against 52% saying they would vote for Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, will provide a boost.

Take out the 'don't knows' and the figures break down at 65% to 35% in favour of Northern Ireland's current constitutional position.

The data offers an antidote to excitable recent commentary concerning the imminence of Irish unity.

From a wildly different perspective, hardline republicans might claim vindication in dissenting from Sinn Fein's acceptance of the northern consent principle.

Yet the Sinn Fein leadership has not claimed a united Ireland is inevitable. The party's message, reinforced by recent success in the South, is that unity is to be striven for and preparations got underway.

Detailed consideration of the data offers more hope to republicans. First, only a bare majority of Northern Ireland's citizens (52%) support its maintenance, hardly a resounding endorsement of a political entity.

Second, there has been a 2% rise in support for Irish unification since the 2017 election. This looks modest but that rate of increase every 2.5 years would produce a majority for a united Ireland within two decades.

The pro-unity figure of 29% is the highest so far from an interview-based, non-self-selecting survey.

Third, nearly 17% of respondents said they didn't know how they would vote, giving lots of electors to work upon.

Fourth, when the results include only those who voted in the 2019 election - people we might reasonably assume would also show up on referendum day - things are tighter: 61% back Northern Ireland staying in the UK, against 39% wanting Irish unity.

Among 2019 voters, Sinn Fein needs to convert 12 in every 100 voters to back unity to bridge that 24-point gap.

Those identifying as neither unionist nor nationalist need to be won over, as only 27% would back a united Ireland. That's a big chunk (40%) of the electorate.

Beyond a border poll, the survey shows some broad agreement but continuing electoral polarisation.

Overwhelming support for restoration of the Assembly and Executive, with only 2% of electors dissenting, is evident.

The top three election issues were Brexit, the NHS and the constitution, although DUP voters put the NHS first, and Sinn Fein voters Brexit.

There is agreement on minimising Brexit fallout.

Most DUP voters still back EU withdrawal but do not like possible consequences. Less than one-third view checks on goods travelling across the border on the island of Ireland as acceptable.

Only one in five DUP voters accept the trade-off, checks on goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Even though this might represent an economic united Ireland, only one in three Sinn Fein voters back such arrangements.

The election began with rows about pacts. For all the noise, only 22% of DUP voters and 12% of UUP backers are opposed, while a mere 29% of Sinn Fein and 21% of SDLP voters reject pan-nationalist pacts.

Only a minority of supporters of any of the five main parties support British or Irish political parties standing in the North.

Has electoral spring arrived? No chance.

The percentage of Catholics saying they voted DUP or UUP was zero per cent. Protestants voting Sinn Fein or SDLP? 0.2%. What about Alliance's rise? Of those declaring "no religion", support for Alliance was almost double that for any other party.

The grim hostility shows in attitudes to party leaders. Asked to rate Arlene Foster on a zero (bad) to 10 (good) scale, more than half (56%) of Sinn Fein voters gave the DUP the lowest possible ranking and just 2% rated her at six or above.

Then again, 40% of those same voters gave UUP leader Steve Aiken zero - and on election day the poor bloke had only been in the job for 33 days. SDLP voters are hardly more generous: 91% rate Foster and Aiken between zero and five out of 10.

On the other side, three-quarters of DUP supporters rate Mrs Foster at eight or above and the same amount place Michelle O'Neill at two or below.

Only 1% of unionist voters give Sinn Fein's Northern leader a positive rating (six or above). SDLP leader Colum Eastwood must feel positively loved in comparison, 9% of Unionist voters rating him at six or above.

There is no consensus on some issues now under Assembly control. Only 8% of DUP and UUP voters think there should be an Irish Language Act. Just 3% of Sinn Fein and SDLP voters believe there should not. Good luck to the new commissioner.

On abortion, neither the liberal Westminster provisions introduced last year permitting abortion up to 28 weeks, nor the very restrictive previous legislation, command majority support.

Same-sex marriage, however, is in the rear-view mirror as an issue, with more supporters of all the main parties believing legalisation was right than think it wrong.

It is constitutional, not marital, unions where arguments will continue. The new Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis, will not be calling a border poll during his tenure.

Given a Northern Ireland Secretary has an average shelf-life of 21 months - less if they do a good job - that is no surprise.

Eventually, one of his successors will call a referendum. It probably will not be the last, though.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and Principal Investigator of the 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019 Northern Ireland election surveys

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