The vast majority of people on the island are democrats and would accept whatever verdict referendums on Irish unity returned in both jurisdictions. That much is clear from the results of the twin North and South polls which continue in Tuesday’s Irish Times.
But it is clear also that there is a sizeable minority of voters from a Protestant background who are strongly opposed to Irish unity at a level that goes beyond normal political disagreement, to the extent that they would find it very hard to accept the result.
Last year, former first minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster said in an interview that she would probably leave Northern Ireland in the event of a united Ireland. While this option is clearly an extreme one and was not examined by this survey, the poll does find that deeply-held antipathy to the idea of a united Ireland is something that is shared by a large number of people in the North.
Asked to imagine how they would feel in the event of referendums deciding that the North should leave the United Kingdom and unify with the South, almost a fifth (18 per cent) of all Northern voters say they would “find it almost impossible to accept”.
Of these, the great majority are people from a Protestant background — almost a third of all Protestant-background voters are in the “impossible to accept” camp. This must be taken in the context of 41 per cent of Protestant-background voters who say that they would “not be happy” with the result but that they “could live with it” and a further 21 per cent saying they would “happily accept” it. So it’s clearly a minority among unionist voters. But it’s a big minority.
Any future arrangements for a united Ireland would have to take account of the existence within its borders of a large minority of people hostile to the idea of the new enlarged state and, perhaps, alienated from its institutions, politics and symbols.
This could be particularly problematic given the clear lack of enthusiasm among voters in the South — as demonstrated in the poll findings reported yesterday — to make changes to those institutions and symbols to accommodate unionists.
An irredentist core of unionist/loyalist voters who remained opposed to the post-unity state would present significant difficulties for its success. It is not, after all, as if political violence is unknown in this part of the island. We have already seen in the poll’s previous findings that the threat of loyalist violence in advance of any referendum would make many southern voters less likely to support a united Ireland. The focus group discussions, as reported and analysed by Profs Brendan O’Leary and John Garry today, suggest that this fear runs not very far below the surface in discussions about a possible united Ireland.
Minorities who are alienated from new or redrawn states are hardly an unknown challenge for politics and statecraft. Northern Ireland has a long and unhappy experience of dealing with the problem in the worst way possible. Those who argue for unity and those who might one day have to find a way to make it work will wish to make sure that the mistakes of the past — here and elsewhere — are not repeated. What today’s poll results tell us is that the existence of the problem cannot be ignored.
While a great majority of people on the island are democrats and would accept whatever results that referendums produced, it’s worth remembering that the majority of people were democrats during the Troubles, too.