Mark Devenport’s report for Spotlight gave ballast to the latest polling on the interminable subject of a prospective border poll. If Boris Johnson took a risk denying Scotland an independence poll, the stakes for doing the same in NI are far lower.
In fact, the numbers in the Lucid Talk poll for a United Ireland were in slow regression before Brexit. Looking at party political fortunes, it’s clear that those advocating most loudly on constitutional issues are losing ground.
There have been some spectacular (if isolated) electoral upswings for the SDLP but according to one ongoing survey it seems that they (unaccustomed to breaking 10%) are taking the interest of a rising number of Northern Ireland voters.
The Spotlight poll (see the after show discussion too) doesn’t really speak to that development directly. But it does highlight a concern (possibly segueing into anxiety for some individuals) about the possibility of a return to violence…
Some 76% fear a return to violence. Now that does not mean that we are headed back towards violence any more than those who believe a United Ireland will remain in the UK after ten years or those think it will leave by 25 years.
These are just perceptions, but of all the readings in the poll, this is probably the starkest of them and one that communicates the most tangible of the hopes or fears mapped out in this short poll. It’s a conclusion that only 11% disagree with.
In some respects, it’s not difficult to see why. Not only were the Brexit negotiations polarising and stress making for ordinary people and businesses alike it also invoked a lot of dramatic rhetoric that played off a theme of the return of the troubles era violence.
Demagogic simplification around the culture of those areas worst affected by the Troubles means that when it comes to loyalist protests or the continuing attempts by Republican paramilitaries to kill police there is little peacetime framing.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin is one of the few southern leaders who has been self consciously plotting a pluralist approach to the past and the future (often thwarted by others in his multiparty cabinet). In the programme, he notes:
“We have to acknowledge the hurt and the terrible deeds that were done, but out of that people did evolve from it. what We can’t be captured for ever by the bitterness of the past. We’ve got to let it go for the sake of future generations.”
It’s hard to discuss other aspects of the poll since they don’t really show much change over time. But I think it was Mark who pointed out that the difference between LT polls and the various campus based surveys is the size of the DKs.
That section who declare themselves to be DKs in face to face interviews tend to harder into advocates of a UI. The pro Union figures seem to be consistent in both (indicating perhaps a shy nationalist vote).
We saw something similar happen in Scotland where the early polls started with independence being relatively unpopular, but as Alex Massie explained in 2013, the referendum campaign shifted it a little closer to the Overton Window…
I know I have mentioned this recently but it bears a simple repetition. Back in May 2003 in our study of the future of Unionism in Northern Ireland we warned them that they should plan for a parity referendum which…
…renders traditional allegiances irrelevant. What will be decisive will be those who, for whatever reason, choose not to pass through their ‘home’ lobby. In theory, only one defection would be needed to swing the vote; one Protestant voting for a united Ireland, one Catholic voting for the status quo. In practice, apathy could be just as important as apostasy; the absent and swing voter both up for grabs.
Now, the truth is that this is a two way swing door. And the picture we painted back in the early noughties has shifted substantially. The idea of two monolithic communities facing off against each other has been quietly dissolving.
The stiffest competition unionism faces today is from post unionists, who are not that interested in the constitutional question at all. My old constituency North Down is the second most protestant in NI, but has a post unionist MP.
This is not a long slow inevitable slide into a United Ireland, but the reassertion of apathy and indifference on the constitutional issue and a growing interest things other than the irresolvable binaries of traditional cultures.
The SDLP has finally woken up to the realisation that this is not something that will only affect unionism in time to protect the overall vote levels that it already had (making substantial gains in some places, and substantial losses elsewhere).
For the first time quite a few of the former nationalist voters who defected to Alliance in 2019 had been SF stalwarts (and from fragmentary anecdotal evidence some of them previously quite committed to the whole militarist agenda).
This should be obvious than it seems to be long before now. The widespread reporting of the 2011 census focused hugely on the fact that there was no longer a protestant majority, and missed the slowing of Catholics and a 3% leap in neither to 17%.
Given the rise of the Greens, Alliance and even PBP I’d be prepared to guess that figure is heading for something in the region of 20%. I certainly see no reason for suspecting there would be any slowing down in the growth of that segment.
That means there are going to be more people up for a discussion on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future but they will comprise many people who don’t respond well to tribal signalling nor the use of violence to keep them onside, or quiescent.
High levels even of the fear of violence are not an incentive for changing the status quo not least because it has been contiguous with a decline in the vote for both the main proponents of tribal/constitutional politics, the DUP and Sinn Féin.
Conversion fantasies, Gerry Adams, for example, once suggested loyalists should stop ‘trying to work out some kind of obscure notion of Irish Protestant culture’ and embrace Irishness, have been replaced by one of demographic dominance.
It’s a distraction to serving the need of the moment: ie to accept that neither community is going anywhere for a long time, and the optimal route to retention of the Union or reuniting with the south is use what we already have.
The most telling effect of the dull thrum of violence (whether threatened or real) is the fact that those clear that they want a United Ireland in the south is just around 50%, and this in spite of Sinn Féin’s current popularity down there.
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