The findings of the research published as part of the final phase of the North and South project for The Irish Times demonstrate how partition has become embedded in the daily lives of people on the island.
Most people in the South have no friends or relations in Northern Ireland, have not crossed the Border in the past five years, have not taken an overnight trip there. The North has more contact with the South than vice versa, but not a whole heap more. The island is not just home to two political entities – there is a separation between the two societies that is clear from the data.
Of course there are substantial links and daily contacts. And we know that cross-Border trade has grown dramatically since Brexit. But as the focus group discussions make clear, people view the two places – and, in many cases, their inhabitants – as different. That may be as much of a barrier to Irish unity as the constitutional arrangements.
As part of the surveys, which were conducted simultaneously in Northern Ireland and the Republic among more than 1,000 respondents in each jurisdiction last August and September, voters were asked a series of questions about visiting the other part of the island and their friend and family relationships with it.
Asked if they had ever taken a day trip to the other jurisdiction in the past five years, a quarter (25 per cent) of Northern respondents said they had not. In the Republic the proportion was more than twice as high – 51 per cent of people said they had not been to the North in the past five years.
In the North, a further 10 per cent said they had visited the Republic on a day trip once in the past five years, while 41 per cent said “several times” and 24 per cent said “lots of times”.
The pattern in the South is noticeably asymmetric: Southerners go North less frequently. A further 19 per cent said they had visited the North on a day trip just once in the past five years, while 22 per cent said they had visited on a day trip “lots of times”. Just 7 per cent said they had visited the North “lots of times” over the past five years.
Not surprisingly, the numbers of those who have take an overnight trip to the other jurisdiction is smaller. Almost six in 10 voters in the Republic (59 per cent) have not overnighted in the North over the past five years, while over a third (34 per cent) of Northern Irish respondents give a similar answer. A further 19 per cent of Southern respondents have taken just one overnight trip to the North.
The level of separation when it comes to friends and relations is even greater. Two-thirds of Southern voters (66 per cent) say they have no friends living in Northern Ireland, while the corresponding number in the North – who have no relations in the South – is 52 per cent. Two-thirds of Northerners (66 per cent) have no relations in the South; 81 per cent of Southerners have no relations in the North.
This separation is further illuminated in the focus group discussions held in both jurisdictions, which illuminated a relationship that is sometimes distant and uncomprehending. “I think the British people up there are even more British than the people living in England, if you get me, and the Irish people up there are extremely Irish more than what we would be,” said one southern participant.
All the data is helpfully summarised by Prof John Garry and Prof Brendan O’Leary in the adjoining article using the composite indicators of weak, moderate or strong connections with the other part of the island.
Perhaps not surprisingly, they found that people from a Catholic background in Northern Ireland were more likely to have strong cross-Border connections, and Catholics with such connections were more likely to be in favour of Irish unity. This correlation is much weaker for people from a Protestant background, suggesting that for many people from that community having good relations with the South is compatible with opposition to Irish unity.
What does this mean for the question of Irish unity, the major subject of the North and South series? We have seen in the research reported before Christmas in The Irish Times that voters say a unity referendum would be soundly defeated in the North were it held. There are, the findings suggested, considerable political obstacles to Irish unity not just being passed in a referendum, and then even if it were passed, to being a success. That does not mean Irish unity can never happen – just that it is a much more difficult and likely long-drawn out process that many of its supporters seem to realise.
As the research also makes clear, the island is home to two societies that are separate in many respects. The task of bringing them together, should it happen, will be a complex and difficult one.
- Read all our pieces in the series to date here North and South - The Irish Times