It is perhaps ironic that, given politics in Northern Ireland has revolved around the border question since its inception, there is a significant amount of uncertainty regarding whether the people of Northern Ireland want to stay in the United Kingdom or become part of a united Ireland.
There have been a number of opinion polls and surveys on the question since the Brexit referendum in June 2016, which have yielded significantly varying results on the question of support for Irish unity at a border poll. For example, the recently released Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (NILT) of 2017 has pegged support for Irish unity at 23%, whilst a Lucid Talk survey carried out in December 2017 placed support for unity (albeit conditional on a “hard Brexit”, a return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland) at 48%.
On the surface, the disparity between these results is a little like saying “eyewitnesses report that the snake was between 1 millimeter and 1 kilometer long.” If support for Irish unity in Northern Ireland is 23%, then there would seem to be little prospect of unity within the next century, whilst if support is really at 48% then a small but persistent majority in favour of unity is a realistic prospect within the lifetime of the current parliament. So, what gives?
The chart at the top of this post shows how opinion has shifted on the border question in Northern Ireland in the seven polls that I have identified that took place since the Brexit referendum in June 2016. I have placed an asterisk beside the December 2017 Lucid Talk poll, as the question was on how you vote in a border poll if there was a hard Brexit.
Since the Brexit referendum, there has been a rapid decline in support for Northern Ireland remaining in the UK from over 60% in 2016 to under 50% today. Accordingly, there has been a sharp rise in support for Irish unity from around to 20% to over 40% today.
When put in context with other polls taken over the last year, the NILT result isn’t an outlier with regards to support for the union. There is, however, a noticeable spike in “Don’t Know/Wouldn’t Vote” in the NILT results compared to other polls taken around the time, and a corresponding fall in support for Irish unity. A reason for this could be the fact that the NILT survey is carried out in person, whilst the other polls featured here were carried out online, so there could be a “shy united Ireland voter” factor at play in face-to-face surveys.
The “Don’t Know/Wouldn’t Vote” population from the NILT survey are key to understanding the riddle of the volatile polling numbers for Irish unity. Northern Ireland is approximately divided into three groups with regards to the border question:
· Unionists, who comprise roughly half of the population and are opposed to Irish unity
· Nationalists, who comprise roughly a quarter of the population and are in favour of Irish unity
· Swing voters, who comprise roughly a quarter of the population, who are open to persuasion on the matter
Demographic change has meant a gradual increase in the number of nationalists relative to the number of unionists, but the driver of the rapid change over the last two years has been the swing voters group, who have dramatically shifted in favour of Irish unity since the referendum.
The NILT dataset shows that these persuadable voters share a number of characteristics.
With regards to community background, this group is somewhat less Protestant than Northern Ireland as a whole; 33% of the swing voter group came from a Protestant family background in 2017, compared with 48% of the overall population. In 2016 only 27% of this group came from a Protestant background, perhaps indicative of a shift amongst the Protestant population from being pro-union to agnostic on the union.
Interestingly, they are less likely to say that they describe themselves as Irish; 32% of the persuadable group describe themselves as either “Irish not British” or “More Irish than British”, compared to 33% of the population as a whole.
So, what has driven the swing voters to fall so dramatically in favour of Irish unity? There would appear to be a number of reasons for this shift, but economic arguments play a key role. When asked if they agree with the statement “I would be in favour of Northern Ireland entering a political and economic alliance with the Republic of Ireland if it would help jobs and the economy”, only 3.6% disagreed, compared with 30% of the group that said they would vote to remain in the UK.
Social attitudes also play a role – 88% of the undecided group say that they treat people the same regardless of their sexual orientation, which is higher than those who say they would vote to stay in the UK (83%) or vote to join a united Ireland (81%). In terms of support for political parties, the largest party amongst voters undecided on the union is the Alliance Party (10%), although just over 50% of this group say that they don’t identify with any political party.
The swing voter group comprise of a number of overlapping subgroups; “soft nationalists” who consider themselves Irish but are content with the status quo, social liberals, and a significant number of people who are concerned about the impact of Brexit on the local economy and would countenance stronger cross-border ties if it would benefit the Northern Ireland economy.
The problem for unionism is that DUP policy, and by extension the policy of political unionism as a whole, has been to do as much as possible to infuriate all of these groups. The refusal to grant concessions on issues such as the Irish language and equal marriage, as well as their support for the Conservative government and their plans for the UK to leave the European single market, has driven the majority of persuadable voters to now be in favour of Irish unity.
If Northern Ireland’s persuadable voters continue to indicate their support for Irish unity as they are doing now, the impact of demographic change is likely to mean that there will be persistent but narrow support for Irish unity in opinion polls within the next few years. It remains to be seen whether unionism in Northern Ireland will be able to reverse the catastrophic choices that have been made since 2016.