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United Ireland: Economic arguments will be a key influence on any future Irish unity referendum

Poll analysis: Sovereignty trumps economics for some. For others the financial effects would be decisive

NI poll image week two

For many voters, in Northern Ireland and the Republic, questions of sovereignty trump economics. In other words, whether they are better- or worse-off as a result of Irish unity would make no difference to their vote.

In the North, more than four-in-10 say it wouldn’t matter to them when deciding how to vote if they were going to be £3,500 better- or worse-off. In the South, the number is smaller – about 30 per cent. But that’s still a hefty minority.

However, for a very significant – and perhaps decisive, if it comes to it – cohort of voters in both jurisdictions, how the economics of unity plays out in their personal lives is very important indeed, and will have a significant bearing on their thinking.

The opinion polls are part of the North and South series, a research collaboration between ARINS and The Irish Times. ARINS, Analysing and Researching Ireland North and South, is a joint project of the Royal Irish Academy and the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame. This is the second year of the collaboration between The Irish Times and ARINS.


In the South, the picture is – as you would expect in a society not divided by national allegiance – more straightforward. Half of all voters are either a lot more likely or somewhat more likely to vote for unity if it would make them €4,000 a year better-off. But that is unlikely to be the dominant economic theme in any unity debate, so perhaps the other number is more relevant.

If they believed that unity would make them €4,000 a year worse-off, 44 per cent would be less likely to vote for unity. How households would be insulated from the inevitable costs of unity – at least in the short-term – will be a key battleground for pro-unity campaigners should a referendum be called.

In Northern Ireland, the picture is more complex – as would be the question of the economic effects of unity. The prospect of being worse-off, not surprisingly, could sway 43 per cent of all voters against unity – including 40 per cent of those from a Catholic background.

But does the prospect of being better-off sway votes similarly? Almost a quarter of voters from a Protestant background (23 per cent) and a third (33 per cent) of “others” say they would be either a lot more likely or somewhat more likely to vote for a united Ireland. In a tight vote, those sort of margins could be important.

These numbers also suggest that voters in the South – some of them anyway – are prepared to consider footing the bill for a united Ireland.

When the proposition that the Republic should put aside 10 per cent of its budget surplus to pay for the future costs of a united Ireland is put to voters, those in favour in the South (36 per cent) outnumber those against (26 per cent) comfortably.

Poll Monday
Poll Monday

However, a hefty chunk of voters (29 per cent) are non-committal, saying that they would “like to know more about this idea before I come to a view”. On the whole, voters are cautious on the question. They are certainly not dismissing it out of hand.

It should be noted that these questions are asked at a time of rude good health in the Republic’s public finances. In other words, southern voters are being asked if they would be willing to use a small proportion of the spare cash that they have set aside to deal with future needs.

The current fortunate position, of course, may not always be the case. We know from our recent history how quickly economic fortunes of a small highly globalised economy, with a penchant for hefty public spending, can change. It is not hard to speculate that should surpluses turn into deficits in the Republic then the willingness to spend on the costs of a united Ireland might diminish.

The simultaneous, identical polls were taken by Ipsos B&A in the Republic and Ipsos in Northern Ireland, who conducted in-home interviews with more than 1,000 voters in each jurisdiction. The margin of error in each is estimated to be +/-3.1 per cent.

Taken altogether, these findings underline the importance of the economic arguments that will doubtless precede any future referendum.