Signs that ‘losers’ consent’ among Protestants for Irish unity is increasing in Northern Ireland

Public opinion in North and South has remained largely stable on the idea of unification

NI poll image week two

The ARINS/Irish Times 2023 survey results can be compared to the results of our 2022 survey to assess whether changes have occurred in public attitudes towards possible referendums on Irish unification.

Among Northern Catholics there has been an increase in support for holding a referendum. Last year 74 per cent were in favour of having a referendum and 12 per cent were opposed – a balance in favour of 62 per cent. This year 81 per cent are in favour and 10 per cent are opposed – a balance in favour of 71 per cent.

There is stability over time, however, in the views of Northern Protestants, with two fifths supporting referendums in 2022 and 2023. And in the South opinions are also consistent over the two periods, with three quarters supporting referendums last year and this year.

In the surveys, respondents were also asked when, if ever, referendums should be held. There is a high level of stability in the views of the public in the North on this question.


Three-fifths of Northerners in 2022 and 2023 favour referendums within 10 years (59 and 61 per cent respectively), as do slightly less than four-fifths of Catholics in both years (78 and 79 per cent respectively), and just over two-fifths of Northern Protestants (42 per cent in both 2022 and 2023).

In the South, the proportion favouring a referendum within 10 years has increased from 75 to 81 per cent. Interestingly, this change is driven by an increase in the proportion who wish to see a referendum imminently, within five years: up from 57 per cent in 2022 to 63 per cent in 2023.

Poll Sat

On the question of how people would vote in a referendum, there is little change between 2022 and 2023. Readers should observe that the percentage differences are within the margin of error.

In 2023, 30 per cent in the North said they would vote in favour of unification (compared to 27 per cent in 2022) and 51 per cent to stay in the UK (compared to 50 per cent last year), with the remainder saying they either “don’t know” or would not vote.

Three-fifths of Northern Catholics say they would vote for Irish unity, while four-fifths of Protestants say they would vote to stay in the UK. There is a much larger proportion of pro-UK Catholics (one in five) than pro-unification Protestants (four per cent).

To establish who exactly these pro-UK Northern Catholics are we examined how they responded to a question asking how they would vote in an Assembly election. Only 22 per cent of them would vote for Sinn Féin compared to 64 per cent of pro-unity Catholics.

There was, however, only a slight tendency for them to vote for the SDLP (9 per cent rather than 7 per cent) or Alliance (14 per cent rather than 10 per cent) in greater numbers than pro-unity Catholics. Notably, 43 per cent said that they either “don’t know” or “would not vote” compared to only 12 per cent of pro-unity Catholics.

In the South, 64 per cent said they would vote for unification compared to 16 per cent who said they would vote for Northern Ireland to stay in the UK, while 13 per cent said they did not know how they would vote and 7 per cent said they would not vote.

Poll Sat

Respondents were also asked how they would react to the result of a referendum, if one were held.

An interesting and potentially important change between 2022 and 2023 is evident in how Protestants in Northern Ireland would react to an Irish unity outcome.

In last year’s survey one in three (32 per cent) of Northern Protestants indicated that if the result of the referendum led to Irish unification they would find this outcome “almost impossible to accept”. This year that response has declined to 23 per cent.

This result does not mean that Northern Protestants would now “happily accept” unification if that was the outcome: only one in five opted for this option in 2022 and 2023 (21 and 22 per cent respectively). But what has changed is the proportion saying that they ‘would not be happy but could live with it’: an increase from two fifths in 2022 (41 per cent) to one half (51 per cent) in 2023.

These findings suggest that among Northern Protestants there has been a decrease in the intensity of opposition to and an increase in grudging acceptance of, the referendum result if the outcome is Irish unification.

This result may reasonably be characterised as an increase in the level of “losers’ consent” among Protestants: an increase in the extent to which they would accept, albeit reluctantly rather than enthusiastically, a referendum decision for Northern Ireland to become part of a united Ireland.

This increase in potential losers’ consent is important because if Irish unification were to happen, having voters on the losing side consenting to the democratic outcome of a referendum is an important leading indicator of a peaceful and more effective transition.

Several possible interpretations may be offered as to why this losers’ consent among Protestants has increased this year.

Perhaps as the debates surrounding a possible referendum have gained traction there has been a normalisation of the discussion and a breaking of taboos, which has led to less intense fears of change. Perhaps the continued lack of a government at Stormont has had the effect of making alternatives to the status quo less unimaginable and, in turn, less intensely unacceptable.

Perhaps the legal and administrative consolidation of special status for Northern Ireland under the Protocol and the Windsor Agreement – the post-Brexit trading agreements agreed for the North – has led more unionists to accept that Irish unification is the expected direction of travel. The more one expects a negative outcome the slightly easier it is to live with it; differently put, acceptance occurs after denial and grief.

A similar trend towards greater losers’ consent is also evident in Northern Catholics’ reaction to a hypothetical referendum outcome in which Northern Ireland would stay in the UK.

In both 2022 and 2023, a majority of Catholics indicated that they would “happily accept” such an outcome, but the proportion saying they would happily accept it has risen from 52 per cent in 2022 to 59 per cent in 2023. And the proportion saying that they would find it “almost impossible to accept” remains tiny (at 4 per cent in both years). After all, this option is the status quo.

Similarly, Southerners indicate a high level of acceptance of a referendum that would result in a pro-UK outcome. The most popular option in both 2022 and 2023 (50 per cent) was “happily accept” with only 6 and 4 per cent (respectively in 2022 and 2023) indicating that they would find it “almost impossible to accept”.