‘It is not as simple as Catholics voting for a united Ireland and Protestants voting against’

Focus group conversations about Irish unity conducted by ARINS and The Irish Times reveal information gaps on both sides of the Border, but also a willingness to change minds

Surveys give a snapshot of declared opinion at a point in time. What they don’t do is capture the strength of conviction or willingness to consider alternatives. Focus groups do that – they give participants time to volunteer their views and to explain and reassess their reasoning.

Research conducted last year by ARINS – which is a joint research project of the Royal Irish Academy and the Keough-Naughton centre for Irish studies at the University of Notre Dame – and The Irish Times on future political arrangements on the island of Ireland, relied on two major polls and on focus groups – with some interesting and unexpected results.

While the results of the simultaneous surveys published last year found that there are currently clear majorities against unity in the North and in favour in the South, the research as a whole – including the focus group discussions – also revealed that for many people there is an appetite for further information and discussion on the topic.

What we learned offers direction for the next phase. One striking insight were the information gaps on major issues. There was a lack of understanding, North and South, on public entitlements on the “other” side of the Border. Most participants had never had a formal conversation about Irish unity in this type of professional setting and wanted such dialogue to start now – long before referendums. People in each jurisdiction knew very little about the cost of living, the school system, the health service or benefit entitlements in the other. They also knew almost nothing about what would happen if referendums voted for Irish unity – not even on clear issues such as EU membership, and they wanted expert information on such topics.


The research showed people’s strong desire for a more structured discussion on the implications of a united Ireland, and for expert information – in particular on economics and public services. And it showed that participants – even those who initially expressed strong opinions – were open to considering alternatives.

Focus group participants were chosen from undecided voters representing a swing constituency in Northern Ireland. We chose a similar cohort of research participants in the Republic. But although their constitutional preferences were not yet settled, many held opinions similar to those who wanted unity or the United Kingdom.

There was confusion about the consequences of unity, including on issues where the outcomes are already known. Despite extensive media coverage of the fact that Northern Ireland would immediately re-join the EU and the euro zone in the event of a united Ireland, this was not well understood. On public services, many participants in Northern Ireland asked very basic questions about their entitlements after unity. People worried they would be treated as though they had never paid taxes, national insurance or pension contributions. One asked: “We’ve paid into the British government. I’ve never paid into the Irish. I haven’t. So would we be entitled to anything?”

They wanted to know what constitutional change might mean for public services, principally health and education, but also foreign direct investment and the economy more generally. They wanted “expert” advice on these issues during a deliberative phase, and not just in the heat of a campaign.

The health service was frequently mentioned. There was an assumption amongst many that everyone, regardless of income or health condition, paid for health services in the South. Some participants who started off with a robust defence of the NHS as a reason to support Northern Ireland remaining in the UK ended up saying that there was little real difference due to the even worse waiting lists and non-availability of services in the North. There was an awareness that pensions and benefits were higher in the South, but not the precise amounts.

“I don’t think it’s as simple as Catholics voting for a united Ireland and Protestants not. I think it’s become a much more open debate now”

In the two Northern Ireland focus groups most of the participants were clear that the issue of Irish unity was not just a matter of traditional identity politics. They said things like: “I don’t think it’s as simple as Catholics voting for a united Ireland and Protestants not. I think it’s become a much more open debate now.” Even when identity seemed to determine initial uncompromising responses – as in the immediate Southern refusal to contemplate change in the national flag, anthem and emblems – by the end of the session even the most assertive participants’ openness to dialogue on these issues was evident.

Some people in the Northern Ireland groups expressed a strong preference for a devolved Northern Ireland in the context of Irish unity, but many began to question their prior assumptions as the discussion progressed. The participants were uneasy about the binary option of devolution versus integration in a future united Ireland. Participants in the Northern groups proposed a third option – devolution in Northern Ireland as a “stepping stone” to an integrated Ireland. It was also clear that, unprompted, the participants’ priorities for deliberation about a united Ireland were issues such as the economy, pensions, the health service and threats to peace rather than institutional design.

There was general agreement that holding Brexit-style referendums, without a detailed plan as to what happens afterwards, would be a disaster. Only the Irish government and parliament have the credibility to outline a pre-referendum model for a united Ireland, striking a balance between setting out what would happen if the referendums were passed, while allowing scope for post-referendum debate. However, the evidence of these focus groups is that it is too soon for the Irish government to make firm decisions on issues such as whether a devolved assembly would continue in Belfast after unity.

The next phase should be one of scoping out and debating the range of acceptable ideas and only narrowing down to defined options later in the process. What is needed now is a sustained and systemic process of discussion and deliberation. Both the survey and the focus groups reveal a lack of knowledge, a lack of prior discussion, but also a willingness to listen, learn and change opinions. Whatever the outcome of referendums, an open deliberative process can build a greater degree of acceptance by those who end up on the “losing side”.

Prof John Doyle is vice-president for research in Dublin City University. Joanne McEvoy is a senior lecturer at University of Aberdeen. Jennifer Todd is emeritus professor at the school of politics and international relations at UCD. This article is based on a longer peer-reviewed research paper, published as part of the ARINS project.