Northern Protestants pessimistic on benefits of Irish unity

Slim majority of people in the Republic believe Irish unification would be costly in the short term but beneficial in the long term


In the ARINS/Irish Times surveys, the public in the North and the Republic were asked what they thought the economic consequences of Irish unity would be over both the short and the long term. We wanted to see whether they had different assessments of the short- and long-run consequences.

A slight majority in the Republic (52 per cent) thought Irish unity would be costly in the short term but beneficial in the long term. This response was also the most popular among northern Catholics, though less prevalent at 42 per cent, rising to 51 per cent among Sinn Féin voters.

Just under one in 10 (8 per cent) of Southerners gave the most optimistic response of no short-term cost and long-term economic gain, compared with about one in seven (15 per cent) of Northern Catholics.

Combining the two categories, about three-fifths of both Southerners and Northern Catholics saw long-term economic benefits from unity, and Northern Catholics were somewhat less likely to see short-term costs.

Tuesday poll

One in five Southerners and Northern Catholics (21 and 19 per cent respectively) opted for the most pessimistic interpretation of the economic consequences of unification: costly in both the short and long term. Campaigners for reunification will need to change the minds of these pessimists.

A majority of Northern Protestants opted for the most pessimistic response (54 per cent). One in 10 said unity would be costly in the short term but beneficial in the long term, and a further 4 per cent opted for the most optimistic response of short- and long-term gain.

A surprisingly high proportion of Northern Protestants indicated that they “don’t know” (almost three in 10 or 28 per cent). That suggests they may be open to persuasion on what the short- and long-term economic consequences of unification may be.

Similarly, among Northern “Others” one third said they “don’t know”. Otherwise, they were in between Catholics and Protestants in how they responded, and roughly evenly split between optimistic and pessimistic responses.

Short term and long term

The phrases “short term” and “long term” are often used in public discourse to describe the economic impact of political events, including potential Irish unification. But they are somewhat vague and subjective expressions, open to different interpretations in different contexts. So, to get a sense of how exactly the public interpret these expressions, respondents were asked what they thought the phrases meant in discussions about the possible economic consequences of Irish unity.

There was a greater tendency for people in the North – among all respondents; Catholics, Protestants, and “others” – to think “short term” means within two years. Some 40 per cent of each group did so, compared with only 30 per cent in the Republic who took such a ‘short’ view of ‘short term’. Only a small proportion of people (10 per cent or less), North and South, thought “in the short-term” meant longer than six years.

When respondents were asked to indicate what they thought “long term” meant, Northern Catholics had the shortest time horizon: almost three-fifths (58 per cent) thought “long term” was within 10 years. In contrast, only 42 per cent of Northern Protestants thought “long term” was within 10 years.

These findings about how people define short and long term accentuate what we have already identified: the economic pessimism of Northern Protestants and the economic optimism of Northern Catholics.

If for Protestants the “long term” really is quite long, and Protestants do not see positives for unity in the long term, then that’s a genuinely bleak outlook. And if for Catholics the “long term” will happen relatively soon, and Catholics largely perceive long-term economic benefits, then that’s a warmly optimistic outlook.

Impact on voting

How do the short- and long-term evaluations of the economic impact of unification influence how people say they would vote in a referendum?

Unsurprisingly, respondents in the Republic with the most pessimistic evaluations, negative in both the short and long term, are the least likely to say they will vote for unification: only a third of this group (35 per cent) support unity. And those with the most positive evaluations in both the short and long term are the most likely to vote for unification (84 per cent).

Tuesday poll

Mixed views

But what about those with mixed views? Most importantly, given their prevalence, are those people who think there will be short-term costs but long-term overall gains deterred from supporting Irish unification, or are they nevertheless willing to support it?

By an overwhelming margin, it appears they are willing to take the short-term problems on the chin in order to reap the dividends over the longer term: 81 per cent of this group said they would vote for Irish unification, almost identical to the 84 per cent in the group with most positive evaluations.

Exactly the same pattern emerges in the North.

Only 5 per cent of those with pessimistic short- and long-term evaluations said they would vote for unification, while 67 per cent of those in the most positive evaluation group said they would do so.

An almost identical 65 per cent of those who see short-term costs but long-term gains support unification. Clearly, what matters is the belief in the long-term gains, and those who anticipate such gains are supportive of unification, irrespective of whether they see short-term problems.

Whatever one’s view of whether Irish unification would likely be economically positive or negative, it is plausible that the short-term effects would matter less than the long-term effects, whatever their direction.

These findings suggest that in influencing public attitudes for or against unification, short-term factors will rank behind people’s longer-term evaluations. But, as we have seen, where people draw the line between the short and the long run will be important.