North-South study: Could the Republic’s budget surplus pay for a united Ireland fund?

Survey finds a plurality of voters North and South favour the idea, with greater support in the North

The Government is forecasting a cumulative budget surplus of €65bn over the next three years.

The Republic has been debating the pros and cons of long-term investments. Some argue in favour of novel infrastructural projects, others want new schools or hospitals built, and others want climate change mitigation measure to be prioritised.

Another possible long-term investment would be to prepare for a potential united Ireland. If referendums are to be held, and if voters on both sides of the border support the creation of a united Ireland, resources will be needed to implement the decision effectively.

Respondents to the ARINS/Irish Times surveys were asked whether they thought it would be a good or bad idea for Ireland to invest some of its wealth to facilitate the smooth enactment of Irish unification if voters support that option at some point in the future.

The money ring-fenced in the suggested sovereign wealth fund would be invested and earn a profit that would be reinvested to enlarge the fund over time. If a united Ireland did not happen within a certain period – 20 years, for instance – this money could be released for spending on other matters.


More than a third (36 per cent) of people in the South agree with the proposal to prepare for a united Ireland in this way, while around a quarter (26 per cent) disagree, indicating that the South is indeed, on balance, willing to invest in the possibility of a united Ireland now. One in 10 say that they don’t know while the remainder (29 per cent) indicate that they would like to know more before they decide.

The balance of opinion in Northern Ireland is also in agreement with the investment proposal, by a slightly larger proportion than in the South: 44 per cent to 28 per cent. This result is largely driven by the very strong support given to the idea by Northern Catholics, who back the proposal by a proportion of more than four to one.

Poll Monday

Northern Catholic support for southern investment in a united Ireland is perhaps unsurprising, given it would represent costless financing of an idea they largely favour.

Northern Protestants are the least in favour of the investment proposal, with only 27 per cent backing the idea, while two fifths oppose it. This result, too, is perhaps unsurprising: Northern Protestants are unlikely to wish to facilitate preparing for a united Ireland that they do not want. But it is notable that more than a quarter of Northern Protestants are in favour of such preparatory investment.

Perhaps these respondents do not want Irish unification to happen, though they accept that it could happen. And they perhaps prudently believe that if it is going to happen then “‘twere well it were done” with careful preparation.

Less plausibly, some hyper-strategic Protestant respondents may think investment in a sovereign wealth-fund would divert spending away from other public service investment in the South, thereby occasioning discontent and reducing the likelihood of the South becoming more appealing to persuadable voters in the North.

Poll Monday

When views on investing in a sovereign wealth fund to prepare for unification are broken down by party supporters, Sinn Féin voters in the North are by far the most enthusiastic, with 77 per cent in favour and only 10 per cent opposed (net support of +67).

This level of support is much greater than that shown by Sinn Féin voters in the South: two fifths of them are in favour, slightly more than one quarter disagree, while 32 per cent either indicate that they wish to know more about the idea or don’t know.

Supporters of the Alliance in the North, which is formally neutral on the constitutional question, are the second most in favour of the investment proposal (net support of +29) while supporters of the SDLP are the next most supportive (+24). Fine Gael voters are just as enthusiastic as southern Sinn Féin voters. Fianna Fáil voters are the least in favour of the main southern parties examined. They are evenly balanced on the issue, with 35 per cent in favour and the same proportion opposed.

This relationship between party support and views on investing to prepare for unification may partly be explained by its possible appeal to those who do not have to pay for it (supporters of the Northern parties), those who support parties generally regarded as economically conservative and who emphasise economic prudence (Alliance and Fine Gael), and those who support parties that are either in favour of or not opposed to Irish unification (all non-unionist parties).

Some southern Sinn Féin voters may believe that such investment is not necessary, or, more likely, that current housing and health needs should come first. A minority of them may think that unification would be costless.

The most opposed to the proposal are supporters of the most hardline unionist party, the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). Slightly less opposed are supporters of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The unionist party typically regarded as the most moderate is the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), and one quarter of its supporters agree with the idea while slightly less than half are opposed.

Advocates of unification thus face an intriguing challenge. Should they acknowledge some likely costs associated with implementing unification and propose appropriate investment planning?

The size of the Republic’s budget surplus may fluctuate over the years, sometimes radically. The idea examined by our respondents involves a constant percentage (10 per cent) of any surplus. So the ring-fenced amount would be smaller in years of reduced surplus, and zero in deficit years.

The overall findings suggest support for the proposal to invest 10 per cent annually of whatever the budget surplus happens to be. Such support refutes the simplistic view that the South wants unification but is not prepared to pay a single euro for it.

Advocates of unification thus face an intriguing challenge. Should they acknowledge some likely costs associated with implementing unification and propose appropriate investment planning? If they did, most people would be open to the idea.