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A dysfunctional Northern Ireland makes a united Ireland more attractive

We are not at the stage of declaring that the South is ready to welcome the North into a new state that would be more costly, more pluralist and more British. But nothing is set in stone


For the past two weeks, The Irish Times has been publishing the results from this year’s iteration of the North and South project. It examines the state of public opinion in Northern Ireland and the Republic on the possibility of a united Ireland, and the issues that surround the constitutional question in areas such as economics, possible political and constitutional structures, culture, flags, symbols, anthems, etc.

Importantly, the project does not presuppose or advocate for a united Ireland in the future, nor does it seek to undermine the idea. Its function is to provide comprehensive, objective, unbiased information on what people think about the idea. The two sides are more than capable of making up their own minds and arguing about the data. Our job, as we see it, is to put it out there.

The collaboration between The Irish Times and ARINS is in its second year. ARINS is a joint initiative of the Royal Irish Academy and the Keough-Naughton School of Irish Studies at Notre Dame University – home of the Fighting Irish, and other types – and is dedicated to analysing and researching Ireland, North and South. I have been fortunate to work with Prof Brendan O’Leary of the University of Pennsylvania, and Profs John Garry and Jamie Pow from Queen’s University Belfast on designing the surveys and interpreting the data.

So what did it tell us? Well, we should say that there is another tranche of research from this year’s surveys that will be presented early in the new year. But it seems timely to summarise the public findings thus far and consider what they mean for the politics of the Republic and Northern Ireland – and the relationship between the two, now and in the future.


Firstly, the prospect of a border poll in this decade is slim. Under the Belfast Agreement, the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland should call a poll when it seems likely to pass. But this year’s numbers in the North show only marginal change from last year – 51 per cent in favour of remaining in the UK (up one from last year) against 30 per cent who would vote to join the Republic (up three from last year). Undecideds decline by three points to 15 per cent. Despite a majority in the North actually being in favour of a referendum, in part because some unionists want to put the question to bed now, the tests for a border poll in the agreement are not within an ass’s roar of being met.

Secondly, there is some limited movement towards a united Ireland. As we have seen, the numbers of those in Northern Ireland who say they would vote for a united Ireland in a referendum has grown by three points this year and while the gap between unionists and united Irelanders among declared voters is large, it is also true that if the gap continued to close at that pace consistently over the next decade, then things would look different by the early-to-mid 2030s. So let’s see what happens next year on that.

Perhaps more significantly, though, is the sharp decline in the numbers of hardline unionists who say they couldn’t stomach a majority vote for a united Ireland. Last year, almost a third of people from a Protestant background said that they would find it “almost impossible to accept”. This is a deliberately vague formulation designed to examine what the political scientists call “losers’ consent”, on which all democratic systems depend (it is the lack of losers’ consent, for instance, which makes the threat posed to American democracy by Donald Trump so acute). This year’s those numbers have fallen substantially – from 32 to 23 per cent – indicating a growing acceptance of the possible future outcome of a referendum.

Thirdly, the South is moving, too. While last year showed strong resistance, both to paying for a united Ireland and changing the Republic to make it more amenable to nearly a million people with a Protestant/loyalist/unionist/British identity, there are signs in this year’s data that people in the South might be open to a conversation or a process around these things.

A hefty majority say they would change the Constitution, either amending it or replacing it entirely. They are open to perhaps using some of the South’s bulging exchequer surpluses for a united Ireland fund. They might consider changing the flag and anthem, so long as they had a veto over it.

We are not at the stage of declaring that the South is ready to welcome the North into a new state that would be more costly, more pluralist and more British than the current state. But there is room to manoeuvre, it seems.

Finally, some brief general points:

It is clear that making a success of any united Ireland (as opposed to just securing majorities for it) is a task that will take many, many years of planning and dialogue. It is likely that the next government, whoever leads it, will have to face up to that task.

It is also clear that this question is now a part of our politics in a way that it has not been before. That seems unlikely to change.

Which makes it all the more mind-bogglingly inexplicable that the DUP is not trying to make Northern Ireland work.

There is no doubt that Jeffrey Donaldson finds himself in a tight political bind, with potential political downsides no matter which way he turns. But if Northern Ireland doesn’t work then wavering middle ground voters are likely to consider other arrangements that might work, potentially including a united Ireland.

If this is true, then the DUP’s existing political strategy is bonkers. As the North and South series makes clear, and indeed as all political history teaches us, nothing is set in stone. That applies even in Northern Ireland. Things are moving; nothing stays the same.

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