Subscriber OnlyPoliticsAnalysis

Predictions of a united Ireland by the end of the decade now look fantastical

A major new research project examines attitudes North and South about the future of the island - and the likely outcomes of any Border polls

NI Poll top image

Findings of the Ipsos polls in The Irish Times could not be clearer: a Border poll in Northern Ireland would reject the prospect of unity by an unquestionably large margin. In the Republic, by contrast, as a united Ireland is backed by an overwhelming majority.

But that’s not all that’s going on. The research also suggests shifts are ongoing in the two societies, especially in the North. There is a high proportion of “don’t knows”. “Others” — those who identify as neither from a Catholic nor a Protestant background — are an increasingly important political force, potentially decisive in not just constitutional but more quotidian political battles in the future. And many undecided or swing voters told our focus groups that they are open to a conversation about a united Ireland.

But while the others, the undecideds and the swing voters might be open to an argument in favour of constitutional change, it’s also clear that the traditional identification of political outlook with religious background is weakening: a large minority of those from a Catholic background say they would vote in favour of the union with Great Britain.

In the South, meanwhile, although the commitment to a united Ireland is a mile wide, there are important questions about how deep it is.

NI poll graphics Day 1

So the picture is complex, and there’s a lot to unpack here. Bear with us, then, over the coming days, again next weekend and in January as Irish Times writers, along with the academic participants in the project — Prof Brendan O’Leary of the University of Pennsylvania and Prof John Garry from Queens University Belfast — seek to report, analyse, clarify and critique the masses of data assembled in Dublin and Belfast by Ipsos (which separately handled the research operations North and South) from the twin polls and the accompanying focus groups. By the end, we hope to have presented the clearest picture yet of the state of public opinion and voting intentions, North and South, on not just the constitutional future of the island, but the nature of the relationships between the two jurisdictions and — crucially — the reasons and animating forces behind all that.

For all that the picture which will emerge from the data over the coming weeks is complex and nuanced, many people will understandably focus today on the most arresting finding: the clear Northern No to a united Ireland. There’s no other conclusion from the headline findings today.

The likely results of any vote for the foreseeable future are very clear: in Northern Ireland, among voters who declare a preference, the majority against unity is almost 2-1; 50 per cent against a united Ireland and just 26 per cent in favour. There is, for sure, a high proportion of don’t knows — almost one in five (19 per cent). But even if every single one of those don’t knows swung in favour of a united Ireland (and in the real world, that simply does not happen), the pro-union side would win.

The constitutional status quo in Northern Ireland is supported overwhelmingly by those from a Protestant background (78 per cent), by a significant minority of Catholic-background voters (21 per cent) and by a third of all those who describe themselves as being from neither a Catholic nor Protestant background.

For the record, respondents in the North were asked the following question: “If there was a referendum asking people whether they want Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom or to unify with the Republic of Ireland, how would you vote in that referendum?”

Ireland is divided on the unity question

Listen | 43:16

The decisive nature of the northern results means that the views of voters in the Republic on the issue won’t matter until such time as there is a sea-change in views North of the Border. But public sentiment in the South remains firmly pro-united Ireland — even if, as the research will go on to show, there are reasons to doubt the depth of that commitment, and the price in financial, political and symbolic terms that voters in the South might be willing to pay for unity.

Two-thirds of Southern voters (66 per cent) would vote for a united Ireland, with just 16 per cent against and 13 per cent who said they did not know how they would vote; 5 per cent said they would not vote.

To that extent, the all-island results suggest that the age-old picture has not changed that much from the old certainties that meant the Republic seeking a return of the “fourth green field” and the North firmly wedded to the union with Great Britain.

But to say that’s that and assume there is nothing else going on under the surface would be a mistake. There is something else interesting happening: there is a clear desire for referendums, not just in the Republic, but also in the North. This suggests a couple of things — that a not insubstantial minority of unionist voters want a referendum in order to put the question to bed but also that many people recognise that this conversation about a united Ireland is under way.

In fact, the desire for referendums in both jurisdictions is one of the striking features of today’s findings.

NI poll graphics Day 1

The question asked, as with all the questions in the series, was as straightforward and neutral as possible and ran as follows:

“Do you think there should be referendums in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland asking people whether they want Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom or to unify with the Republic of Ireland?”

Participants were offered three possible responses: “Yes, there should be referendums”; “No, there should not be any referendums”; or “Don’t know”.

Three-quarters of voters in the Republic (76 per cent) say there should be referendums; asked when 27 per cent said within the next two years, 30 per cent of people said “in about five years’ time”, and 18 per cent said “in about 10 years’ time.”

But there is also a strong majority in the North in favour of referendums — 55 per cent of respondents are in favour, with just 30 per cent against.

Three quarters (74 per cent) of those from a Catholic background said they were in favour of a referendum, while a large minority — 39 per cent — of those from a Protestant background also favour a Border poll. More than half (51 per cent) of others want a referendum. Voters in the North are a bit less keen than Southerners for a Border poll — 24 per cent want it within two years, 21 per cent within five years and 14 per cent within 10 years — but the openness to a vote is still notable.

And while some unionist voters clearly favour holding a Border poll because they think they can win it, the data and the accompanying focus group discussions suggest that among many voters in the North there is an openness to a discussion — an openness that is in contrast to the unyielding attitude of much political unionism.

One further point should be made about this: the strength of the “others” and the size of the don’t knows suggest that these findings — unequivocal though they are — may not be set in stone forever, even if the widespread predictions of a united Ireland by the end of the decade look somewhat fantastical in the light of today’s headline findings.

The focus group discussions, which were drawn up and moderated by Ipsos around a set of questions and topics agreed with The Irish Times and the Arins project [Analysing and Researching Ireland North and South], also contain evidence of an openness to a discussion, and even a vote, among undecideds and swing voters.

“I think the debate would be good to open up some facts and actually see what are we actually voting on. Let’s open up the debate. That’s the only thing,” said one participant. “You could answer some of those questions and get them discovered a wee bit. At the moment, it’s really only an idea, isn’t it? There’s nobody really understanding what that would be.”

Asked what she would need to know before a vote, one female focus group participant, a 43-year-old working-class protestant woman from Co Antrim replied: “Exactly what it would look like. Not like Brexit, but exactly how it would look before it was passed.”

Another participant, a 61-year-old SDLP woman from Derry, agreed: “It would be difficult for me to work out how I would be affected until I know exactly what way, you know, the powers that be are thinking this could work. And then I’ll start to consider it a bit more.”

Some of the groups’ discussions also illustrated the quantitative poll findings about the changing nature of Northern society with personal insights.

“I suppose, it usually would simply have been a Protestant/Catholic issue, whereby if you were Catholic you wanted a united Ireland. But I think the situation has changed quite a lot now for a lot of people. They don’t think about it anymore,” said one of the participants, a 73-year-old Co Tyrone Protestant who voted for the Ulster Unionist Party earlier this year but is undecided on how he would vote in a Border poll.

“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 and there’s a lot of questions which will arise now there’s a whole lot of stuff and other issues that will need to be teased out over a long time before people even think about making a reasonable decision.”

Another participant agreed. A 32-year-old male also from Co Tyrone, he identified as neither Catholic nor Protestant, voted for the Alliance and was undecided on a Border poll. “I don’t think it’s a simple, you know, orange versus green issue anymore. And I also don’t think it’s inevitable that all people from a Catholic background would vote for a united Ireland as well. You know, yes, I think there’s Protestants that will vote for it, but I also think there’s Catholics that will be against it. So, it’s not that simple as one side and the other.”

What does this mean for the current unity campaign and for politics North and South?

The prospect of a united Ireland, what it would look like and what the models might conceivably be is a part of political discourse on the island now in a way that it has not been before. Today’s numbers do not say that it could never happen, but they do say that it is almost certainly a much longer-term project than many of its supporters say.

Certainly, it would be hard to imagine a British government — which has the responsibility, under the Belfast Agreement — even considering a referendum on the basis of these numbers, or indeed on any of the polling results of recent years. Under the agreement, the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must be of the opinion that a referendum would pass before he or she calls it. These numbers say the opposite is likely.

But the numbers and focus group returns suggest a conversation about a united Ireland is not completely otiose — there is a willingness among undecideds and some middle ground “others” to consider the issue. There is a curiosity about what it might mean and a sense that a lot more information is required before a referendum could sensibly be held. There will be more on this aspect of the findings in the days ahead.

Indeed, it may be that the security about the union offered by today’s findings provides a space for unionists to engage more widely in conversations about a potential united Ireland at some point in the future — secure in the knowledge that there is no threat to the union, unionists may be willing to make the case for it.

For those campaigning for a referendum and a united Ireland, they can take heart that the clear desire North and South is for votes to be held — even if, under the Belfast Agreement, it is the likelihood of success, not the public desire for a vote, that is the decisive factor in the calling of a poll.

What is also clear from the Northern results (though perhaps the opposite is the case in the South) is that the drum beating for unity is not winning over the growing and likely decisive section of the population of Northern Ireland — the middle ground. It is through them that the path to a united Ireland — if it is ever to happen — will run.