PoliticsAnalysis

Northern voters’ views on Irish symbols pose interesting challenges to advocates of unification

The findings of a survey on the shamrock and the Irish Tricolour pose interesting challenges to advocates of unification

How do Protestants in Northern Ireland feel about symbols that are typically regarded as Irish? And, in the event of Irish unification, how would they feel about the use of such symbols?

In the ARINS/Irish Times surveys all respondents were presented with the same image of the shamrock. For one random half of respondents the Irish association with the shamrock was described as follows: “The shamrock is strongly associated with the celebrations on St Patrick’s Day.”

For the other random half of respondents, the shared association of the shamrock with Ireland and Britain was described as follows: “The shamrock is a national symbol of Ireland and is also used as an emblem of the Royal Irish Regiment of the British Army.”

Both statements are true but might be expected to trigger different reactions.

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Northern Protestant views on the shamrock are relatively moderate. On a negative to positive scale, running from 1 to 7, they are somewhat favourably disposed: an average score of slightly less than five on the scale. There is no difference in the scores given by Protestants in the “Irish description” group and the “shared description” group.

In the event of unification, Northern Protestants are neither opposed to nor in favour of having the image of the shamrock embossed on one of the euro coins: they score slightly over 3 on the oppose (1) to favour (5) scale. Again, their views are also quite fixed: opinions are the same irrespective of whether the Irish or shared heritage of the shamrock is described.

We also focused on the flag of Ireland. All respondents were shown the same image of the flag. For one random half of respondents, the Irish heritage of the flag was described as follows: “Since the formation of the Irish State, the national flag has been the republican tricolour. It was famously flown during the 1916 Easter Rising and in the Irish War of Independence against British rule.”

For another random half of respondents, the shared heritage of the flag was described differently but just as accurately: “The flag was designed to represent the two main political traditions on the island. The white in the centre represents lasting peace between ‘orange’ and ‘green’.”

Northern Protestants have more hardline views on the flag of Ireland than on the shamrock. They are somewhat negatively disposed in general: just under 3 on the negative (1) to positive (7) scale. And there was no difference between the two groups that received different descriptions of the flag.

Poll Sat

Respondents were also asked, on a 1-7 scale, whether, in the event of Irish unification, they would like to keep (1) or replace (7) the Tricolour. Northern Protestants are very hostile to keeping the flag, with an average score of about 6 on the 1-7 scale. On this question the views expressed appeared just a little less hostile when the flag’s shared (5.8) rather than simply Irish (6.1) heritage was described, but the difference was not statistically significant.

When we investigate this question further, we find that the effect of our experiment varies according to different types of Northern Protestant respondent.

Another question in our survey enables us to distinguish “hardcore” and “moderate” unionists. The question presented respondents with eight policy priorities, one of which was “keeping Northern Ireland in the UK”, and others included health, economics, the environment and so on. Respondents were asked to indicate what their own personal priorities were and could choose up to four.

Very firm unionists, who chose “keep Northern Ireland in the UK” as one of their top priorities, were extremely keen to replace the Tricolour in the event of unification: indicating 6.4 on the 1-7 scale. And the scores were the same in the two experimental groups.

In contrast, more moderate unionists, who did not indicate staying in the UK as a top priority, were sensitive to how the Irish flag was described. They were substantially less hostile to keeping the flag when its aspiration to reflect a shared heritage was presented (5.2 on the scale) compared with when its revolutionary Irish heritage was described (5.8 on the scale).

These findings pose interesting challenges to advocates of Irish unification. Some symbols, such as the shamrock, elicit relatively moderate but inflexible reactions from Northern Protestants. Other symbols, such as the Tricolour, trigger responses that are more hostile But for at least some – moderate – Protestants this reaction is softened when the shared heritage of the symbol is emphasised.

Last year’s ARINS/Irish Times data suggested that changing the Tricolour would upset southerners and would do little to assuage the feelings of hardline unionists.

Advocates of Irish unification who wish to reduce hostility among flexible unionists should emphasise the flag’s shared heritage but they should not expect a warm embrace.

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