Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Are we really polls apart over the Good Friday Agreement?

A new study showing 87% of Leave supporters in NI would consider the collapse of the peace process a price worth paying for Brexit lacks the necessary nuance to make it convincing. But it is still worrying all the same, says Eilis O'Hanlon

If the peace process was to collapse after Brexit it would not be the fault of those who voted to leave the EU and now expect the result to be delivered. Blame would lie entirely with those who chose to use violence in response to decisions with which they don't agree.

It is still something of a shock, though, to discover that a staggering 87% of those who supported Leave in Northern Ireland would, according to a new study, consider the collapse of the peace process a price worth paying for Brexit.

Leave voters in England, fair enough. There's no particular reason why they should be expected to care if Brexit was followed by violence in a part of the country they don't understand and care little or nothing about.

The same Future of England study found that they don't mind if they lose Scotland either. And why would they? The Scots spend half their lives moaning about the English. It might be a blessed relief for those on the southern side of that particular border to be rid of the rebellious Scots Nats. Cheaper, too.

But why would anyone in Northern Ireland itself value peace so little, considering that they suffered the bloody consequences of a vicious, internecine conflict for decades? That makes no sense.

It makes even less sense that, according to this ongoing research, commissioned from YouGov by the universities of Edinburgh and Cardiff, Northern Ireland had the highest proportion of people who claimed not to care about the collapse of the peace process.

Even people in Wales apparently worry about it more than we do. Not by much, but enough to make one wonder what's going on.

Call me a cynic, but I must admit that my first instinct on seeing the headlines this week was to conclude that the choice couldn't have been as clear-cut as all that, and this was merely a sensationalist interpretation of the results. In fact, the choice really does seem to have been phrased that bluntly.

The question put to respondents by YouGov between May 30 and June 4 this year was: "Some have suggested that leaving the European Union might present challenges to the UK. One of these includes the unravelling of the peace process in Northern Ireland. If this happens would you say that - A: It was worth it to take back control? B: Leaving the EU was not worth jeopardising the peace process?"

Given that stark choice, nearly nine out of 10 of those who voted Leave on this side of the Irish Sea really did pick the first option.

Looking at it more closely, though, doubts do start to creep in. There seem to be an awful lot of hidden assumptions in that question and no way to challenge them in the given answers.

It sets up a false dilemma. It's overly simplistic. It's like asking: "Some have suggested that female equality would lead to a breakdown of Western civilisation. If that happened, would you think it was - A: Entirely justified. B: Not worth it, I'll just stay here in the kitchen, thanks."

It's a "when did you stop beating your wife" kind of question, which seems to have been designed to make a splash rather than uncovering anything meaningful about people's attitudes to huge and complex issues.

At the very least it requires further probing. Other questions in the poll have multiple possible answers. For example, it asks Scottish voters whether Scottish MPs should be allowed to become ministers at Westminster and there are six possible answers, from Strongly Agree through Tend To Agree to Neither Agree Nor Disagree back to Tend To Disagree and Strongly Disagree. There's also an option for Don't Know.

Respondents in here were given none of that range of options on what is undoubtedly a far more serious subject. They weren't even allowed to answer Don't Know.

They were simply cornered and asked, Jeremy Paxman-style: "Peace or Brexit? Come on, make up your mind, we haven't got all day." There was no way to answer the question with any of the nuance that it needs.

It's too easy to dismiss the findings of polls whose results don't chime with one's own prejudices. There may have been issues in this particular research with the methodology or wording, but the results for Northern Ireland are consistent with the rest of the UK, making them much harder to dismiss out of hand.

Respondents were also at liberty to refuse to answer if they didn't like the superficial Either/Or choice on offer, but they didn't. They freely made their choice in favour of Brexit above all else, bizarre as that might be.

Because it is bizarre. There's no getting away from that. It's almost like the Belfast Agreement in reverse. In 1998, 71% of people in Northern Ireland and 94% in the Republic decided that peace was more important than any particular constitutional squabble.

Now that seems to have been turned on its head, upsetting the received wisdom that support for the peace process has been hardwired into our collective consciousness to the extent that anyone who is deemed to threaten peace automatically places themselves outside the political mainstream.

Even questioning the republican movement's bona fides has long risked the accusation of being "anti-peace".

It's frankly disturbing if that consensus is as fragile as this new study suggests.

However irritated Leave voters may be by the rampant doom-mongering that surrounds the UK's departure from the EU - of which that silly poll question could legitimately be considered yet another example - they shouldn't be so blase about the possibility, however hypothetical, of peace crashing down.

Assuming, that is, that the findings are accurate. Research which produces startling results should not be dismissed without good reason, but it's always worth looking at more sceptically if it doesn't accord with lived experience.

The mind boggles as to where YouGov found its latest respondents, but there can't genuinely be that many of them around if their existence is such a baffling mystery to many of us who actually live here.

Well, can there?

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