By Kevin Meaghar (for Northern Slant)
Unless you have been living under a rock, you can’t but have noticed that the prospect of Irish reunification has been gaining ground these past three years.
Indeed, we are inching towards the moment, in the next few years, when a referendum (under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement) will need to be held on the constitutional position of the north-easternmost six counties of the island of Ireland.
Certainly if ‘the evidence’ means anything.
In Northern Ireland’s idiosyncratic polity that is far from certain. However, the polls all show the same thing. Irish reunification, by popular democratic consent, is now a live issue. An immutable reality and the central conversation in Irish politics. You are either in favour of it, against it, or not sure if it’s the right time. But everyone’s talking about it.
Not convinced? Well, here, then, are some of the recent polling numbers, so make up your own mind.
THE STRAIGHT CHOICE
‘If there was a “border poll” tomorrow, how would you vote?’
It’s a pretty straight question and the result of a poll in September carried out by Lord Ashcroft -- Tory grandee turned pollster -- showed that 46% of Northern Irish voters would vote for ‘Northern Ireland to leave the UK and join the Republic of Ireland’. In contrast, 45% would choose for ‘Northern Ireland to stay in the UK’. This translates as a 51/49 split for Irish unity once undecided voters and those who say they won’t vote are discounted.
There’s something powerfully symbolic about the finding, with the cause of Irish unity tipping over the halfway threshold. Yes, it’s close and possibly an outlier – and certainly within the margin of error. But for a place designed and built to lock-in communal hegemony, it’s a stark reminder that majoritarian unionist politics is in structural decline.
HOW BREXIT AFFECTS THINGS
‘Four in ten mainland Britons don’t care about Northern Ireland’, according to pre-eminent British political pollsters, YouGov, in a poll from earlier this month:
‘As with so much…Brexit takes precedent. Given the choice between having their preferred outcome on Brexit and Northern Ireland staying in the Union, a majority of 58% chose the former and only 18% the latter.’
To state the obvious, 3:1 isn’t even close.
‘Our precious Union’ as Theresa May described it, clearly isn’t worth much to the average Brit. What’s interesting is that active disinterest in maintaining it is an ecumenical matter for both Remainers and Leavers:
‘The referendum divide does not make a difference, with 58% of Remain voters and 64% of Leave voters saying they’d rather have their way on Brexit than see the Union preserved.’
As ever, Northern Ireland is a faraway place of which the English know, and care, little. In fact ‘[m]any Britons…see Northern Ireland as different to the rest of the UK. Approaching half (46%) believe the region to be very or fairly different to the mainland…’
THE VIEW FROM BRITAIN
Just to double down on the above point – and as if the DUP didn’t need reminding – people in Britain plainly aren’t that bothered about Northern Ireland. An Ipsos-MORI poll for King’s College, London from April 2019, found that:
‘Only 36% [of British voters] said they would like Northern Ireland to choose to stay in the Union while 18% preferred that it should leave and join the Republic of Ireland; a further 36% said that they did not mind either way and 9% did not know.’
Barely a majority of Conservative voters – 51% – said they would prefer Northern Ireland votes to stay in the UK, compared to just 35% of Labour supporters and 31% of Liberal Democrats.
This poll’s significance is that it reveals the essential truth that many Brits can imagine a future sans Northern Ireland. And put it this way: the 18% figure backing Irish unity equates to 10 million people in Britain who hold the same view about Northern Ireland’s constitutional future as Gerry Adams.
THE VIEW FROM THE SOUTH
Of course, it’s all very well northern voters deciding they want to become part of a single Irish state, but it takes two to tango. What about the South?
A Red C exit poll from the Irish local and European elections, commissioned by RTE and TG4, found that southern voters are remarkably comfortable with the prospect of reunification, with nearly two-thirds of voters (65%) answering in the affirmative to the question:
‘If there was a referendum on a United Ireland tomorrow, would you vote yes in favour of a United Ireland, or no against a United Ireland?’
Less than a fifth (19%) said ‘no/against’ with another 15% who ‘don’t know’ or refused to answer. When undecided voters and those who don’t vote are excluded from the sample, the figures are even starker, with a whopping 77% of the Republic’s electorate backing unity.
THE LONG-TERM TREND
Back to the Ashcroft poll– and a helpful chart showing how the discussion about Irish unity is heavily influenced by demographic changes in Northern Ireland. The chart (above) tells the story: diminishing returns for the Union once as you move towards younger age groups.
Although the split is 62/38 in favour of keeping Northern Ireland among Northern Ireland’s pensioners, it switches to 57/43 for Irish unity among everyone under the age of 44.
Something similar was evident in the Red C poll of southern voters (except the average southern pensioner is not so curmudgeonly about constitutional change). Although 68% of 18-34-year-olds are in favour of Irish unity, this high level of support remains consistent throughout the age groups.
It dips for the 35-44 age cohort, dropping to 60% (still pretty robust), but lifts again to 66% for every age group after that, including over-65s, who often tend to be the most conservative on ‘change’ issues.
THE REAL VOTES
At the last Assembly elections in 2017, Sinn Féin was just 1,168 votes behind the DUP. Unionist parties can now only muster a minority of the vote, with the DUP reliant on propping up its position by cannibalising the Ulster Unionists.
All the time, educated young Protestants increasingly drift towards centre and centre-left parties. It doesn’t mean they aren’t unionists, per se, but they are indicating they are persuadable about future constitutional arrangements.
We’re going to muddle through with the forces of unionism and nationalism having roughly equivalent numbers for a few years – a point that will be brought vividly to light in the 2021 Census.
But Brexit may tilt things faster, with everyone who lives in the real economy – regardless of political tribe – sensing the self-evident utility of Irish unity and continued single market access – in the event of a no-deal Brexit shambles.
What isn’t muddled is the clear trajectory, now evident in most polling and actual results. The bottom line is that a growing number of Northern Irish voters back Irish unity, with a clear majority of Brits actively disinterested in whether Northern Ireland goes or stays, with southern Irish voters (if not yet the Dublin political class) happy to take the place on.
Whether you accept the situation as depicted above or not, one thing is clear, these numbers are now only heading on way.
* Kevin Meagher is the author of ‘A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about’