Imperial hangover or club of independent republics? How the Commonwealth is sold impacts Irish responses

Hostility softens depending on how the question is framed. That will matter in the debate on unity

Last year’s ARINS/Irish Times surveys and focus groups found strong opposition among Southerners to the idea of rejoining the Commonwealth under prospective Irish unification. In response we decided to investigate whether this antipathy is deeply rooted and resistant to change or mutable. To do so we conducted a novel experiment.

We decided to see whether people’s views on the Commonwealth vary according to the factual information they are given. Our hunch was that antipathy among Southerners might be particularly strong when the Commonwealth is described in ways that emphasise its British, imperial and monarchical heritage. Conversely, we thought opposition might be diluted if it is described in ways that would make its members seem more like a future united Ireland.

In the ARINS/Irish Times surveys we presented all respondents, North and South, with the same image: a map of the Commonwealth. But we then provided them with different but accurate information about the Commonwealth depending on the group to which the respondent was randomly assigned.

For one half of respondents we accurately described the British, imperial, and monarchical heritage of the Commonwealth. Namely: “The Commonwealth, once known as the British Commonwealth, emerged from the British Empire. King Charles III is the head of the Commonwealth.”


For the other half of respondents we avoided direct allusion to its British heritage and described the Commonwealth as comprising many member countries that are like Ireland. Namely: “The Commonwealth is made up of 56 independent countries, and 36 of them are Republics with a president as their Head of State. The Commonwealth Games are held every four years in a different member state.”

We must emphasise that, apart from the way the Commonwealth was described in these two ways, there were no differences in the composition of the two groups of respondents. Random allocation decided whether someone was in one half of the sample or the other.

All respondents were asked the same question, namely how negative or positive they are towards the Commonwealth on a 1 (very negative) to 7 (very positive) scale.

In the South when respondents were informed about the British heritage of the Commonwealth a slim majority (51 per cent) indicated that they were negative towards the Commonwealth (1-3 on the 7-point scale), while 15 per cent were positive (4-7 on the scale). When, however, a future united Ireland’s similarity to existing Commonwealth members was emphasised only two-fifths (40 per cent) were negative, and just over one fifth were positive (22 per cent).

NI Poll Friday

The provision of different information also had an effect in the North. Respondents who received the “British” heritage description were on balance negatively disposed to the Commonwealth (37 per cent negative, 30 per cent positive). But respondents who were given the information about how similar many of the Commonwealth’s members are to Ireland tended to be more positive (27 per cent negative, 37 per cent positive).

This pattern in the North was driven mainly by respondents from a Catholic background. In the “British” Commonwealth group the proportion who were negative (55 per cent) was four and a half times greater than the proportion who were positive (12 per cent). However, in the “Ireland is like most Commonwealth members” group there were only twice as many with negative as positive views (43 per cent to 21 per cent).

Respondents were also asked whether Ireland, under unification, should join the Commonwealth.

In the South there was strong opposition to Commonwealth membership, but the intensity of opposition varied by the information received by respondents. In the “British” Commonwealth group there was four and a half times more opposition than support (69 per cent to 16 per cent, a net figure of 53 per cent opposed), whereas in the “Ireland is like the Commonwealth members” group opposition was less than three times greater than support (62 per cent to 22 per cent, a net figure of 40 per cent).

In the North opposition and support were evenly balanced in the “British” Commonwealth group (41 per cent in each group, with the remainder “don’t knows”). But among the group presented with “Ireland is like most Commonwealth members” almost half were supportive (47 per cent), with just one third opposed.

Excluding the “don’t knows” to focus on those expressing a view, then almost three-fifths (59 per cent) in the North support membership of the Commonwealth when its members are described as mostly like Ireland, compared to half of respondents when its British heritage is emphasised.

In this case the difference made by the information in the North mainly relates to Protestant respondents. Intriguingly they are more in favour of a united Ireland joining the Commonwealth when most of its members are described as like a future united Ireland (a ratio of over 5 to 1, 64 per cent to 12 per cent) than when its British heritage is emphasised (a ratio of just under 3 to 1, 57 per cent to 21 per cent).

These findings pose challenges to supporters of Irish unification. To assuage the concerns of Northern Protestants opposed to unification, and thereby increase the prospects of “loser’s consent”, they could consider advocating that Ireland should become a member of the Commonwealth in the event of unification. If they did, however, they would have to reduce Southern hostility to the idea.

Such a reduction could, to some extent, be achieved by emphasising the Commonwealth’s current inclusion of post-colonial republics as members and its regular sporting contests. Opposition would still be strong but even hostile views could be softened by emphasising the Commonwealth as a global organisation of independent countries, including republics, rather than its historical association with the British empire and monarchy.

Our findings, therefore, add to last year’s: views on the Commonwealth are somewhat malleable, and how any proposal to rejoin the Commonwealth is presented will matter.

Party supporters of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin in the South

To make rejoining the Commonwealth acceptable amid unification the voters who would matter in a referendum would be Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin supporters in the South. The ARINS/Irish Times experiments show that supporters of Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil are very sensitive to how the Commonwealth is described.

In the group in which its British heritage is described almost two-thirds of Sinn Féin supporters were negative about the Commonwealth (64 per cent), but only 45 per cent were negative in the group where Commonwealth members were described as mostly republics. The corresponding figures for Fianna Fáil supporters were 56 per cent and 39 per cent.

Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil supporters were more in favour of future Commonwealth membership when most other members were described as republics than when its imperial past and monarchical character were cued. Support increased from 8 per cent to 24 per cent among Fianna Fáil’s supporters and from 12 per cent to 24 per cent for Sinn Féin’s.

The information differences did not have a significant effect on Fine Gael supporters, either on general views of the Commonwealth or attitudes to membership. Rather the effect of the “similar to Ireland” description was to bring Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil supporters towards the relatively pro-Commonwealth position of Fine Gael.

  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily – Find the latest episode here