Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey suggests slight increase in support for Irish unity and cross-community support for abortion reform

The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey for 2016, which was carried out last year and the results of which were released today, suggests that support for a united Ireland has increased in the wake of last year’s referendum when the UK voted to leave the European Union.

Support for Irish unity amongst the Catholic community was up three percentage points, from 31% to 34%. Whilst this is the highest it has been in this decade so far, it is still down substantially from before the St. Andrew’s Agreement was signed in 2006, when support for a United Ireland amongst adult Catholics in Northern Ireland was 56%.

Alliance Party supporters are amongst the groups that have shown a significant increase in support for Irish unity since the referendum. Support for a united Ireland amongst Alliance voters was 21% in 2016, compared with 12% in 2015 and 8% in 2014.

Amongst Alliance voters, 29% said that the results of last year’s referendum has made them more in favour of Irish unity, a figure which was identical for both Catholic and Protestant Alliance voters. When asked whether Brexit would make Northern Ireland better or worse off, 84% of Alliance voters thought that they would be either probably or definitely worse off, which was the highest of any party supporters in Northern Ireland.

This suggests that some Alliance voters from both sides of the community who are opposed to Brexit are now more amenable to Irish unification due to the referendum. However the referendum seems to have had only a moderate impact on support for unity amongst nationalists.

For example, 81% 70% of SDLP voters said they were not in favour of a united Ireland, and amongst those only 17% reported that Brexit had made them more favourable to unity. This is despite the fact that 79% of SDLP voters believe Northern Ireland will be worse off as a result of Brexit. It appears that opposition to Brexit amongst SDLP voters has not yet translated into a large increase in support for Irish unity.

Economic attitudes towards Brexit are split down community lines. Nationalist voters believe that Brexit will make Northern Ireland worse off (79% of SDLP voters and 78% of Sinn Féin voters), whilst unionists believe that they will be better off due to Brexit, with only 40% of UUP voters and 26% of DUP voters believing the Northern Ireland economy will be adversely affected.

Whilst Brexit has appeared to have had an impact on attitudes towards the constitutional question in Northern Ireland, the impact appears to be muted so far.

Elsewhere in the survey, questions were asked about attitudes to abortion in Northern Ireland. There appears to be a substantial cross-community consensus in favour of legalising abortion in case of fatal foetal abnormalities, or in cases of rape or incest. However, supporters of nationalist and unionist parties are both opposed to legalisation of abortion in cases where a woman has become pregnant and does not want to have children.

Despite Northern Ireland being as divided as ever on constitutional issues and split as to how Brexit will impact the local economy, there is clear evidence of liberalization on social issues on both sides of the community. It remains to be seen whether a new devolved administration at Stormont, if there is one, will reflect these sentiments with legislation.

A qualified accountant and data analyst, interested in politics, economics and data. Twitter: @peterdonaghy

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