Okay, so riddle me this.
Last Sunday’ poll in the Irish Times says 50% of people in Northern Ireland want to stay in the UK, with just 27% backing Irish unity.
Pretty dramatic stuff, but not all as it seems, (as I mentioned in my piece yesterday).
Further findings from the poll are revealed today, including this nugget.
Nearly half the population of Northern Ireland – 47% of people – would ‘happily accept’ Irish unity, with a further 26% who describe their reaction as, ‘not happy, but could live with it.’
So that’s 73% – nearly three-quarters of people – who are enthusiastic, or at least sanguine, about the prospects of a united Ireland.
Mischievously, the Irish Times turned this the other way round – 18% would find it ‘almost impossible to accept’ – with a ‘hard core’ of unionists ‘who would be fiercely opposed to unity.’
One way of looking at it, I guess, although it isn’t clear whether ‘impossible to accept’ means filling milk bottles with rags and petrol, or just filling-up the letters’ page of the Belfast Newsletter with bile.
What is genuinely baffling, though, is that many of the voters who reject Irish unity in the poll also say they will ‘happily accept’ it.
And not only that, 55% of respondents back holding a referendum on the question. Something only a quarter of them want to see happen.
Does any of this make sense?
I draw two conclusions.
The first is that bald polling on the question of whether voters want a united Ireland or to stay in the UK, detached from any context, isn’t desperately helpful.
There is clearly a large cohort of voters with views that are highly caveated. They might back change, but it is contingent on, say, a new Irish state having a National Health Service, or there being no hint of civil unrest, or, frankly, that they don’t have to pay more tax to fund it.
It doesn’t mean they are indifferent about a united Ireland – they just have their own priorities that they want to see incorporated in the final design and find ‘yes/no’ questions don’t capture the complexity of their views.
My second conclusion is that pollsters, academics and journalists need to dig deeper to better understand voters’ motivations and aspirations around constitutional change.
This would generate a more meaningful conversation instead of fetishising individual polls, especially when their findings are deeply contradictory.
Because the more I read of this Irish Times/Arins poll, the more head-scratching I do.
Kevin Meagher is author of ‘A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable and How It Will Come About’