Has Political Unionism Abandoned the ‘Economy’?

The latest polling undertaken by Liverpool University’s Institute of Irish Studies shows a significant disconnection between the numbers voting for a Unionist party and those who would vote to remain in the UK in a future Border poll.

Just over 50 percent (51.9%) of those who would vote to remain in the Union voted for a Unionist party, such as the DUP, UUP or TUV. But a much higher proportion (69.9%) of those who would vote for Irish unity tomorrow voted for a pro-unity party, like Sinn Fein or the SDLP.

This suggests that Nationalism is much more effective in convincing supporters of their cause (Irish unity) to also vote for the two main nationalist parties as the best way of achieving their objective.

Whereas Unionism is much less effective in persuading the supporters of its primary cause to vote for the three main Unionist parties. These other voters, who would vote to remain in the United Kingdom if a Border poll was called tomorrow, are voting for the Alliance Party, and some for the SDLP and some for the other smaller parties.

Other results in the survey also reinforce the fact that people’s view on the NI constitutional position does not necessarily align to their choice of political party.

This may not come as a huge shock to those who regularly follow Northern Irish politics, given the complex mix of domestic issues intermingled with the over-riding constitutional question. Also, the shenanigans of Unionism’s largest political party, the DUP, whose latest project is to block all progress at Stormont until they get their own way over the trading arrangements for the Irish Sea interface.

At present the DUP are holding out for a miraculous response from the British government which would remove them from the corner they have painted themselves into. However, the real story is when these latest survey results are compared to the overall voter intentions for a future Border poll.

The survey confirms that only 36.1% of respondents said they would vote for a United Ireland, if there was Border poll tomorrow, but a much higher proportion of voters in Northern Ireland (47%) would vote against a change in the status quo.

One reason for the difference between the numbers who vote for a Unionist party compared to those who would potentially vote to remain in the UK could be because domestic policies are prioritised ahead of the Constitution. Or maybe some people are so fed up with politics here that they just want to get on with their own lives, their careers, and providing for their families without the stress of thinking about all of this.

Anyway, this discrepancy is also interesting when compared to what is happening in Scotland at present regarding the Scottish National Party (SNP). The SNP have had some serious setbacks, including some blunders on domestic policy, the loss of its successful party leader, Nicola Sturgeon, a drop in their poll ratings and ongoing investigations into the party’s finances. Despite all of this, opinion polls do not indicate a similar drop in support for Scottish independence.

The latest polling, from June, indicates that support for Scottish independence remains strong, especially amongst younger Scots, with 61% of 25-to-34-year-olds, saying they would vote ‘yes’ for independence.

However, the prevailing determinant in the Scottish independence debate has been the economy, particularly for the older voters. Continual polling suggests that it has been the uncertainly of the future economy in an independent Scotland that has ultimately swayed voters.

Therefore, given that there is a similar divergence in political party and constitutional support in Northern Ireland one wonders why the economy has not featured more prominently in Northern Irish politics, as it is in Scotland.

One possible reason for the discrepancy in Northern Ireland could be that voters views on the economy, investment and employment are currently being masked by other political and domestic policy factors. Or maybe the results of this survey show that the economy will not be a critical factor at all in a future Border poll.

But, nevertheless, this latest survey shows that the economy was only the third most important factor for those voting for the Alliance Party or for Sinn Fein. And, given the DUP’s claims about their commitment to the economy, it is even more surprising that the economy was only the fifth most important factor for those voting for the DUP.

The results showed that the primary motivation for voting DUP was to show support for Northern Ireland’s place in the union.

As in Scotland, the disconnection between constitutional and party politics could be linked to a lack of a serious economic debate in Northern Ireland – regardless of whether this is for the economics of a new Ireland or for making Northern Ireland work.

Maybe if we had a serious economic debate, we would start to understand whether the economy is the determining factor for a future Border poll and explain why so many small ‘u’ Unionists don’t vote for Unionist parties.

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