United Ireland: Southern voters open to discussion on flags and anthem

Southerners are divided on potential changes to the Irish flag or national anthem, while northerners are twice as likely to agree as disagree to changes

In last year’s ARINS/Irish Times surveys and focus groups we found that, in the context of potential Irish unification, southerners were largely opposed to changing two key political symbols: the national anthem and the national flag of Ireland.

This year’s surveys take a different approach and investigate whether the public would consider the possibility of change, especially if there were reasonable procedures to address these emotionally charged subjects.

We sought to explore what people think about a political process that might lead to changes in the flag or anthem. Would southerners be open to the possibility? Or, is opposition to change so strong that even contemplating procedures for possible change would be anathema? We also wanted to know how different views in the North are compared with the South.

Specifically, we presented respondents with the following proposal: in the event of Irish unification, a committee of the new all-island parliament would “consider the views of the public and experts in the heritage and culture of all the people in the island, in all their diversity”.


The committee could propose that voters across the whole island be given the opportunity to choose in a referendum either to retain the existing flag and anthem or to replace them with proposed alternatives.

The alternative flag and anthem on offer in the referendum would be the winners of a competition organised by the committee, involving proposals from musicians, artists and poets.

No changes to the existing flag or anthem would take place unless a majority of citizens voted to approve the proposed changes in the referendum.

Respondents to our surveys were simply asked whether they agreed with this overall proposal, disagreed with it, or “would like to know more about this idea before coming to a view”.

Views North and South

The public in the South is just as likely to disagree with this proposal (30 per cent) as agree with it (29 per cent). By contrast, the public in the North is almost twice as likely to agree as disagree (44 per cent versus 24 per cent). Northern Catholics agree with the proposal by a ratio of four to three, but the most supportive of the proposal, by a ratio of almost three to one, are northern Protestants: 45 per cent agree and only 17 per cent disagree. Northern “Others” have very similar views to northern Protestants.

Overall, southerners are much more conservative on the question of changing the anthem or the flag than northerners, and particularly northern Protestants.

Southerners, however, are less likely to express a view than northerners, and particularly northern Catholics. Only a quarter of northern Catholics, compared with two-fifths of southerners, either “don’t know” or would like more information before coming to a view.

Views of party supporters

Breaking down attitudes by party supporters confirms that Fianna Fáil and southern Sinn Féin supporters are the most supportive of the status quo.

More than a third of Fianna Fáil supporters (36 per cent) are opposed to the proposal and less than a quarter (23 per cent) are in favour of exploring possible anthem and flag change. More than two-fifths of southern Sinn Féin supporters (42 per cent) are opposed and just under a third (30 per cent) are in favour.

But Sinn Féin supporters in the North are, on balance, supportive of the proposal: 43 per cent agree and 37 per cent disagree. Fine Gael supporters are more in favour, by a ratio of four to three.

The three sets of party supporters most in favour of the proposal to consider flag and anthem change are the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Alliance; their supporters are about 2½ times more likely to be in favour than opposed.

These findings pose challenges for advocates of Irish unification, who, if they were to suggest a parliamentary and referendum process to consider changes to the flag and anthem, would face scepticism in the South, especially from Fianna Fáil and southern Sinn Féin supporters.

Unification advocates will have to calculate whether the risk of alienating these support bases is worth the benefits of pleasing northern Protestants, including DUP supporters, who are clearly in favour of the proposed process.

The risk may be worth taking if accommodating the concerns of hardline northern Protestants would decrease their hostility to Irish unification – especially if it would increase their acceptance of unification if it were ever to happen, and hence maximise “losers’ consent”.

Significantly, more than two-fifths (44 per cent) of Protestants who say that they would find Irish unification “almost impossible to accept” agree with this proposal on procedures to consider changing the Irish flag and anthem, while less than a fifth disagree (17 per cent). Almost a quarter of them indicate that they would like to know more before they make up their minds.

This evidence implies a potentially valuable pay-off for advocates of unification. Suggesting a procedure such as that outlined here would have support from those most opposed to unification.

It may assuage their concerns and increase the chances of them consenting to a referendum result that they will otherwise strongly dislike.

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