The latest life and times survey is out. And so is the perennial argument about the difference between polls and surveys. The key usefulness about this survey is the huge ancillary detail it comes with it…
So in this post, I’m just going to pick out a range of data leading up to that most contentious one about whether we are ready to change the constitutional status of Northern Ireland (spoiler alert: survey says, no).
First, how British or Irish do we feel…
What’s fascinating is that if you pull together all the folks who say they feel both, they are the largest group in the survey at 36%. Next come those who only feel British and not Irish 33%, and Irish not British 21%.
Purism is still the most dominant group, with folks feeling exclusively one thing or the other only, but they only make up 54% of the whole community. The rest either feel a mix of the two or some other combo. Just 1% didn’t know.
This may explain why the border is still a dominant question in Northern Irish politics, but it also suggests it is not as pervasive a preoccupation as many in that narrow majority have persuaded themselves it is.
Now, what shape is the poor old Belfast Agreement in…
In 2003, some 25% of the population wanted to bin or re-negotiate the Belfast Agreement. Over the 17 years since that’s now down to 10% (25% don’t know).
Despite its multiple breaches (most recently in its three-year boycott of the Stormont institutions) of that historically popular agreement, Sinn Féin went to such pains to say it supported it (even when it was breaking it).
Reassurances over the continuance of Stormont, or unionist representation in the Irish parliament seems to make no difference to people’s attitudes to the prospect of a UI. Scottish independence makes hardly any difference either.
Healthcare has a real effect. 45% of Catholics would be discouraged from voting for United Ireland. In contrast, just 9% of folks surveyed say health would encourage them to look south.
Despite the recent tumult, the endless chatter in Britain amongst otherwise very serious commentators, and the slickly marketed lobbying in favour of a united Ireland that’s a 2% rise from 2003 (and back to the 1998 level).
I don’t interpret this as saying that unification will never happen. But it is clear that Sinn Féin as the lead advocates of a policy that appeals primarily to those already committed to the idea has failed to move the needle.
If anything, SF’s attempted radicalisation of nationalism over RHI (which almost meant it caught the DUP in the 2017 Assembly elections) has merely revived pro-union sentiment in a population that was losing interest:
Any policy which relies almost entirely on counting Catholics and adding some liberals in the mix can’t work because it doesn’t take account of the huge power of inertia holding back the sort of radical change they advocate.
As with Scottish independence (which did make huge progress against similar survey figures over there), the only path to unity is to broaden the appeal far beyond the home ground and work hard on the structural issues holding it back.
Ironically, the only way to work on those structural issues is to energetically engage with the powersharing structures in partnership with unionism for the betterment of life for the whole community of Northern Ireland.
Then maybe it would be possible to get to base one with fellow citizens and make a material case for the whole.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty