Here we go again. Just a bit of cross posting here to draw attention m to a special edition of The Detail, about a border poll. The comment is based a Lucid Talk opinion poll conducted north and south, showing opinion “ on a knife edge” – 46.8% to stay in the UK and 45.4 % for a United Ireland. The disparity now among three polls in succession can partly be accounted for by different methodology, this one on line, the other two face to face and by telephone respectively. The trend however is towards unity . The variety of methodology makes it no easier to pinpoint the moment for a border poll, but the cumulative effect is that it is more likely than hypothetical.
The questions are all pertinent. They follow the case made by one of few academics to stick his head above the parapet, the rights lawyer Prof Colin Harvey and they follow the course of Sinn Fein’s arguments. SF will be encouraged by the results. They will put pressure on Micheal Martin the likely next taioiseach to comply. It’s perhaps no accident that a more active strategy for unity is now being pressed by the former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, hitherto very cautious on unity as a much admired strategist. but now casting about for a distinctive role for his old party Fianna Fail.
The cross border character of this exercise is a reminder that we are really talking about two complementary referendums taking place in what are in many ways quite different political environments. A decision on a border poll, formally to be taken by the UK government on the basis of a judgement of majority opinion, would have be squared with Dublin to prevent the northern tail wagging the southern dog.
More fundamentally treating unity as a real prospect rather than a dream casts doubt on whether it can be treated as simple binary question. The pressure also exposes that for all the endless talk about it, almost nothing had been done to prepare for it, or an alternative which is bound to include progress towards greater cross border economic development. The evidence suggests that Brexit has created a momentum largely absent before 2016. Would momentum survive a UK/EU deal? A good deal may look unlikely today but the necessity of reaching one eventually is compelling.
An offer of unity has to be made by the south. The complexity and upheaval of making the necessary adjustments put all the usual chatter of constitutional change in the shade. Is the south up for it? Many opinion polls will be commissioned before reaching fully aware satisfactory answers.
The opinion poll shows that
On the timing of unity referendums, 36% for 5 years, (Sinn Fein’s preference ) 17% for 10 years ( the notional prevailing choice) 8% for 20 years and 23 % never.
Brexit has been a big factor in building support for unity, 69% in the North, 75% in the Republic. ( But what will they think if a UK-EU agreement is reached over the next year or so?)
56% in the North and 74% in the Republic would support a Citizen’s Assembly to “ deliberate on a change” – (a key Sinn Fein demand).
An overwhelming 76% want greater clarity for triggering a border poll,
In NI 17.8% would be in favour of a centralised government in Dublin and 33.2% in ROI, while 14.7% of NI respondents and 12.7% in ROI would favour a different governance arrangement. These results seem to favour the continuation of the Assembly with a change of sovereignty but the issue although raised by Sinn Fein, has hardly been debated.
The academic Sophie Long suggests other options:
The most recent NI Life and Times survey data shows that just over three quarters of participants align to an A or B option, that is, remain in the UK or unify with Ireland. However, the only options available were that NI stayed in the UK, joined Ireland or became an independent state, while 16% of those surveyed didn’t know what they wanted the political future to be.
The question around joint authority produced some interesting results, as 64% would either happily accept this or could at least live with it.
Similarly, the data produced for The Detail by LucidTalk show similar levels of support for more formalised governance-sharing between Dublin and Belfast. These results indicate that there are significant numbers in NI who feel political allegiance to the UK or Ireland.
From the 1970s and onward, both major British parties were treated with suspicion by Ulster unionism. In response, British politicians for the most part, have been confused by the cultural practices of unionists whilst simultaneously frustrated by the ability of Ulster unionism to cause them major difficulties.
In short, two groups who appear to be likely political allies instead view each other with hostility and mistrust.
This is in no small part due to the fact that, in NI, Britishness has been constructed in a different environment to how it has in Great Britain. Some unionists and loyalists argue that this is because they faced opposition to their culture from Irish republicanism. Irishness in the north has, not dissimilarly, been forged in a hostile environment. There are some steps being made toward how to publicly accommodate both national identities. This work could be derailed by a border poll, if it is not conducted carefully.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London