North and South: what we know now, and what we want to investigate in future

We examined attitudes to potential Irish unity and related issues in the Republic and Northern Ireland

The final instalment of the latest wave of The Irish Times/ARINS North and South series, examining attitudes to potential Irish unity and related issues in the Republic and Northern Ireland, was published this week.

The extensive research project has now been running for two years and has provided a wealth of independent and neutral data on highly contested subjects. So, what have we learned from the first two ARINS/Irish Times surveys about current public opinion on constitutional futures? What do we know about the prospect of a united Ireland now – and, perhaps, more importantly, in the future?

First, there is no current evidence that the Belfast Agreement’s threshold is met: evidence to persuade the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that a referendum on unity in the North is likely to pass. Over the two surveys, half of those in the North say they would vote to maintain the union with Britain; 30 per cent favour unity with the Republic in this year’s survey, up from 27 per cent last year, 15 per cent don’t know how they would vote, and five per cent say they wouldn’t vote. We know that Catholics are almost twice as likely to say “don’t know” as Protestants.

The South supports unification, with almost two-thirds in favour. Just one in six is opposed. Slightly more than one-sixth either “do not know” how they would vote in a future referendum or would not vote.


Although this breakdown of opinion in the North suggests that referendums are not imminent, there is public support for holding referendums in both parts of Ireland: almost four-fifths in the South and three-fifths in the North. Northern Protestants are roughly evenly divided; it’s fair to assume that some of them want a referendum when they can be confident of winning it.

But there is also support for engaging in preparation for referendums, North and South, suggesting perhaps a broad acceptance that the question will not go away, and a strong desire to avoid repeating the difficulties of Brexit.

In our 2022 survey, defining the model of a united Ireland in advance of referendums was strongly supported, North and South. Our focus group participants highlighted the Brexit experience in which the UK voted in the 2016 referendum without a detailed model of what ‘leave’ would mean. As one Northerner said: “The way Brexit was handled ... was completely arse about face. They agreed to leave and then they negotiated it. That was completely bizarre. So, for the Ireland debate it has to be the other way around. Agree the terms of leaving and then put it to the vote.”

Housing and health remain core priorities among voters but a comparison of our 2022 and 2023 data reveals an increase in the South of those who would prioritise either achieving or preparing for a united Ireland. The same is so among Northern Catholics.

In preparations for future referendums, advocates of Irish unity will need to address how their proposed model will accommodate British-identifying unionists.

We suggested that maximising “losers’ consent” among unionists would be wise to facilitate a smooth and peaceful transition – if unification is endorsed in future.

Our surveys found that a substantial proportion of Northern Protestants would find unification “almost impossible to accept” (one-third in 2022, but down to less than a quarter in 2023).

Winning ‘loser’s consent’ among unionists has two sides. What version of unification would Northern Protestants find least unacceptable? And would such a version be acceptable to supporters of unity in the South and among Northern Catholics? To find out the answers, we presented survey respondents with two possible types of Irish unification.

In the “integrated” model of Irish unity, Northern Ireland would no longer exist as a political unit, and decisions would be made by an all-island parliament and Government in Dublin. In contrast, under a “devolved” model, Northern Ireland would continue to exist, within a united Ireland, and would keep its own assembly, powersharing executive, and power over health, education, and policing.

Northern Protestants are not fans of any model of Irish unification, but they are much less hostile to a devolved version. Whether that preference would persist if the dysfunction of the Northern Ireland executive continues is an open question. And those who advocate persisting devolution, albeit within a sovereign united Ireland, will have to persuade sceptical Southerners and Northern Catholics.

Northern Protestants are much less hostile to unification if a united Ireland would adopt UK-style health service that is free at the point of care. Their opposition also declines if the proposed education system is non-religious. These health and education options would not, our data suggests, face strong Southern opposition, though the details would obviously matter.

What would strongly deter Southerners, based on our 2022 surveys, and focus groups, is the idea of rejoining the Commonwealth, or changing the flag and anthem – moves that would partially reduce the fears of Northern Protestants, but to a lower extent than having their preferred health and education systems.

The idea of making such symbolic changes came as an unpleasant surprise to Southerners. According to one focus group participant: ‘I just figured they join us and that would be that ...’ Another reacted to the idea of rejoining the Commonwealth as follows: ‘Oh God no (laughing), you are just asking for trouble there’.

This strong antipathy to these changes expressed in our 2022 study prompted us to assess in our 2023 study how inflexible Southerners really are on symbolic and constitutional matters.

We found they were relatively open to procedures that might result in change in the flag and anthem, if they had a veto on the changes in a subsequent referendum. Moreover, one-third of Southerners were in favour of a new Constitution, and another third were open to amending the existing Constitution to facilitate unification.

Southerners were also open to discussion on considering changes to the presidency and senate that would accommodate British-identifying Protestants.

Southerners’ views were significantly shaped by what information was presented to them. Hostility to the Red Hand of Ulster and the Commonwealth declined substantially when their association with British identity was de-emphasised, though a strong majority of Southern voters remain opposed to Commonwealth membership no matter how it is presented.

Southern malleability contrasts with the entrenched views of Northern Protestants towards Irish national symbols, notably the flag. Emphasising the shared heritage of the republican Tricolour – green, orange, and white for peace – only increased its acceptability among moderate Protestants.

John Hume’s father famously told him you can’t eat a flag. So, what about the economics of unification?

Northern Protestants have a grim take: either the South would benefit more than the North or mutual ruin. Southerners, by contrast, tend to think that either the North and South would benefit, or the North would benefit more.

Southerners accept, however, that there would likely be short-term costs associated with unification: a majority expect long-term gain but short-term pain. Southerners who hold this view tend to say they will vote for unity to the same extent as those who have a rosy view of the short- and long-term economic consequences. That suggests that Southerners may not be deterred from supporting unification by some short-term costs.

United Ireland: In the Repbulic, 44 per cent said being €4,000poorer would make them less likely to vote in favour of a united Ireland

We also found openness among Southerners to “pay” for the possible short-term transition costs of potential unification. Posed the idea of annually investing 10 per cent of any budgetary surplus in a sovereign wealth fund, to be used to manage the costs of unification, over one-third were in favour. One quarter were opposed, and three in ten ‘would like to know more about this idea before coming to a view’. One in ten indicated “don’t know”.

The question assumes a constant proportion of any surplus, a tenth. The amount invested would therefore vary annually. Nothing would be invested when there is a budget deficit. Whether this overall level of investment would be sufficient to cover the transitional costs of unification, or perhaps more than enough, is hard to forecast. That is because, for example, we do not know the number of years before referendums will be called; the scale, stability, or continuity of the surpluses; or the transitional costs (and benefits) attached to a specific model of unification.

Respondents were also invited to consider, in the event of unification, a scenario of significant enduring reduction in their economic wellbeing, €4,000/£3,500 annually. They were also invited to consider the equivalent positive economic scenario, ie an improvement of €4,000/£3,500 per year. How would these scenarios affect their support for unification?

Northern Protestants, Northern “others”, and anti-unity Northern Catholics were particularly susceptible to the bad economic forecast, and not strongly positively responsive to the good one.

Conversely, Southerners, and particularly Northern pro-unity Catholics, react very positively to the rosy scenario; some of them even appear relatively immune to the negative economic scenario, though more say it would make them less likely to vote for unity.

How the public think about the economics of unification may thus be significantly driven by what they think about the idea of unification in the first place. Pro-unity voters tend to see the economic world through green-tinted glasses. Anti-unity voters tend to have a doom-laden perspective.

Economic debates will certainly be central to any future campaigns.

Pro-unification campaigners should be comforted that support for unity in the South will not plummet once a referendum debate focuses on economics and possible costs are discussed, but they face a big challenge persuading Northern Protestants, anti-union Catholics, and “others” in the North.

As demographics, economic performance, and politics change in both jurisdictions in the coming years, but especially in Northern Ireland, all these observations can be expected to change. But there are two key related issues for pro-unity campaigners: how to achieve sufficient support for unity in the North while keeping Southern support, and – perhaps more importantly – if unification happens, how to make a success of it. Both questions require further study.

ARINS/Irish Times work over the coming years will further investigate the symbolic and economic aspects of the debate on potential Irish unification and identify trends as we add more data points to the series.

John Garry is professor of political behaviour, and director of the Democracy Unit, at Queen’s University Belfast. Brendan O’Leary is Lauder professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and an honorary member of the RIA. Jamie Pow is a lecturer in political science at Queen’s. Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times.

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