Well then, that’s it I suppose.
Irish unity is a pipedream; no closer now than ever. Let’s pack up the tent and all go home.
Half of people in Northern Ireland want to remain in the UK (50%), with just over a quarter (27%) backing Irish unity. (The remainder either don’t know or care).
Two to one. Ouch.
But wait a minute. As any pollster will tell you, individual polls are merely snapshots. You must be careful hanging big pictures on small hooks.
The poll certainly triggered a lot of comment on social media yesterday, (mostly Unionist schadenfreude) but it mirrors, with uncanny accuracy, a previous poll from 2018, again commissioned by Professors O’Leary and Garry and carried out by Ipsos.
Its findings were even more dramatic, with 50% opting to stay in the UK and just 21% supporting Irish unity. Rather than showing a decline in support for constitutional change, yesterday’s poll suggests there is something in their weighting that is producing such dramatic results.
Not that I’m saying its wrong, per se, but these are one-off polls and not desperately helpful in tracking opinion and informing the public debate. With polling, the trend is the thing. The problem we have is that it is hard to divine a pattern because the polling around Irish unity is all over the place.
Far from ideal as we have a major political decision about a border poll on Northern Ireland’s future based, in large part, on an assessment of the public mood around change. We are currently ill-served by the paucity and reliability of the evidence produced thus far.
Personally, I am always hesitant about the polls. Many voters suffer from ‘cognitive dissonance’ on big, complicated issues – holding mutually contradictive views at the same time. Polls are invariably poor at capturing this nuance and so the current approach to assessing public opinion on constitutional change is problematic and potentially unreliable.
As I see it, there are three specific problems.
First, we have the question of framing the proposition that we are asking voters about. A lot of the polls on this subject ask voters what they would do if the vote was tomorrow. This is fine if you are assessing the state of British or Irish political parties. Governments can fall and elections called at any point, so the immediacy of the framing is reasonable.
But it does not lend itself to gauging support for constitutional change. No-one – absolutely no-one – is saying ‘let’s have a border poll right now.’ True Believers and General Public alike understand that this issue is difficult and needs proper discussion and planning. (Indeed, they told the researchers in this latest poll as much).
I constantly have committed United Irelanders telling me they would not vote for a rushed proposition themselves. Polling needs to reflect this important caveat. If you ask a theoretical question, you will get a theoretical answer. Better, surely, to understand and draw out in what circumstances people would support or oppose constitutional change?
The second issue with the polling is that there simply is not enough if it, and what we do have is patchy and variable. Professor Jon Tonge from Liverpool University tweeted out a ‘poll of polls’ from the last couple of years. It suggests the split is 48/37 in favour of the status quo. But it is a case of measuring oranges against apples. The samples and methodologies used to conduct the polls differ, which makes determining a pattern inherently unreliable.
A particular poll that bears mentioning is the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey from 2021 – which, again, had support for Irish unity at just 34%. The team behind it conceded that the sample did not ‘accurately reflect the breakdown of party support,’ with too many Alliance supporters and too few Sinn Fein and DUP surveyed. If a poll’s sampling is wrong, its results will be skewed.
Remove a few outliers and the poll of polls figure is nearer 48/43.
The third problem is that polls are only one way of assessing support for Irish unity. We have other evidence to base a judgment on, specifically May’s assembly election results.
By coding each candidate that stood under a broad heading of being either pro-United Ireland or pro-UK, Professors O’Leary and Garry, and Dr Jamie Pow from Queens calculated the gap between both blocs was as close as 6,416 votes, with less that 1% dividing them.
At IrishBorderPoll.com, we get it to 5,200 using the same approach. Either way, it tells you that when you measure actual votes, this issue is game-on.
Moreover, analysis from the Assembly itself shows the parties that do not major on the constitutional question – Alliance and the Greens – saw their voters’ second preferences disproportionately break for pro-United Ireland candidates.
In a referendum – with a binary choice and no preferential voting – it is reasonable to believe that a clear majority of these voters will back Irish unity.
All of which is simply to make the point that we need more light shining on this issue. All polls are imperfect, so the fewer we have, the more speculation and error we build into our public discourse.
My solution is that the two governments should now fund a series of monthly tracker polls, using a range of providers, and accompanying this with regular qualitative research from focus groups and citizens’ juries. Publish all the data tables (something that routinely does not happen with some of the current crop of polls) so that either side in this debate can cut through the spin.
Then, every two years, assess the evidence about what the polls are telling us. If a majority suggest that support for Irish unity tallies with that for remaining in the Union, then it deserves to be tested in a border poll. If the United Ireland argument cannot routinely get within, say, 2-3 points of the pro-UK position, then it does not.
What is surely beyond contention is that it is time we ended this polling voodoo and built a credible evidence base to inform decision-making on such an important issue.
Kevin Meagher is author of ‘A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable and How It Will Come About’