1 Let’s cut to the chase. The figures don’t look good for United Irelanders in this weekend’s Irish Times/ARINS survey. 51% of people polled in the North said they would vote No to Irish Unity. Only 30% said they would vote yes. 5% said they would not vote and 15% didn’t know how they would vote.
2 Like all polling on the Unity question this one should be taken with a pinch of salt. Let me for now give just one example for my scepticism. The poll finds less than six in ten Catholics in the North would vote Irish Unity in a referendum. Really? Frankly that’s just hard to believe. The problem with surveys to date is that they’re throwing up wildly different results. In this context it is a big stretch to present any poll result including this one as empirical fact. That said however, there are a number of interesting questions posed in the survey. So, with a mega-pinch of salt let’s explore the key findings and their implications anyway. Then I will give you what in my view is the most reliable guide to a future Border Poll result.
3 If (and it’s a big if) this polling is anywhere near accurate then we are a long way from meeting the criteria required to trigger a Border Poll. The British Secretary of State will use surveys like this one as evidence to deny all demands for transparency and on the criteria requirements for triggering a border poll to be made public.
4 In the North there is now clear majority support for holding a referendum on the constitutional question. 39% of Protestants and 81% of Catholics think there should be a border poll. 59% overall.
5 According to the poll 21% of Catholics would vote No to Unity. Is this the `Malone Road Catholic` phenomenon at play? The theory that many prosperous Catholics are materially well off, comfortable with the status quo and see little attraction in opting for the unknown? Is it factors like a Health Service in the South that is not yet free at the point of delivery? Or, is it fear of the unknown when so much of the detail about the nuts and bolts of a new Ireland has yet to to be worked out or clarified? Whatever it is we need to do more probing and digging to find out. The answers to these questions will better arm Unity supporters with the right arguments to win over doubters.
6 The (slightly) good news is that last year the poll found 55% of Northern Catholics in favour of Unity with Don`t Knows at 21%. This year the Don’t Knows are down to 18% and the Yes to Unity figure is up to 59%.
7 While three fifths of Northern Catholics would vote for Irish Unity, four fifths of Northern Protestants said they would vote to stay in the UK. However evidence especially since Brexit tells us a growing number of people from a Protestant background are interested and open to the debate on Irish Unity. But to win them over will require financial and economic details of why they would be better off in a United Ireland. Though the work has started we need to get better at convincing them that life socially, economically and financially will be better in a United Ireland. Especially compared to the current bleak landscape of partition and rule by a British government who just aren’t that into Northern Ireland.
8 For as long as the Unity debate has existed some opponents of Unity have deployed the anti-democratic argument that Loyalists would violently resist a United Ireland no matter what. That there would be civil war etc. Last year the poll revealed 32% of Northern Protestants said they would find the result of a referendum that led to Irish Unity “almost impossible to accept”. This year that response has declined to 23%. That a growing percentage of Protestants are indicating that they could live with a United Ireland if it happened is a welcome development. As Brendan O’Leary put in Saturday’s Irish Times;
“This increase in potential `losers’ consent` is important because if Irish unification were to happen, having voters on the losing side consenting to the democratic outcome of a referendum is an important leading indicator of a peaceful and more effective transition”.
9 Although much of the political and media class in the south of Ireland have a partitionist mindset the polling indicates they are the outliers. An overwhelming majority of people in the South would vote for a United Ireland if a referendum were held today. Irish Unity as an issue has also risen up the list as one of the most important priorities to voters. 64% are in favour of Unity and 16% against, with 13% not sure, while 7%said they would not vote. Speaking as a Northerner I have to say it is heartwarming and gratifying to know that after 100 years of partition our fellow country men and women continue to aspire to the reunification of our country in such huge numbers.
10 The percentage of people supporting Irish Unity in the Irish Times/ARINS survey is not dissimilar to the level of support for Scottish Independence before that referendum was officially called. Yet once the referendum date was officially announced support for Independence surged dramatically and the debate intensified. The arguments were had out and questions explored, discussed, researched and investigated from all angles. Part of the Border poll debate will be about patriotism, love of country and righting a historic wrong but it will also require a solid footing of empirical fact if we are to win. The more facts and research are laid out the more the Unity proposition will likely grow in support. We need to answer now the complex questions of economics, public finance costs and issues of Health, Education and the UK subvention in order to win over those ruled more by their head or pocket than their heart.
11 Finally, let’s return to the elephant in the room – polling and its reliability. When it comes to polling levels of support for Irish Unity we have an obvious problem. There are too few polls from which to draw accurate conclusions. There is also the problem of polls producing wildly varying results. For instance they show a huge gap in support for Irish unity on a sliding scale between 27%-43%. Clearly, they can`t be all right (or wrong). So when in doubt why not go to the most reliable opinion polls – election results?
The oldest English speaking newspaper in the world had it spot on in assessing the strength of the Unity vote.I’m talking about the News Letter`s excellent analysis of the historic Assembly election; “The combined nationalist vote was larger than the combined unionist vote, which has never happened before in a Northern Ireland wide election”. Pro-United Ireland parties took 41% of the vote to a unionist 39% of the vote”. A trend reinforced by this year`s local election results. If you want to read the tea leaves and direction of travel in the Unity debate, real election results should be the first port of call.
The Irish Times/ARINS poll throws up interesting talking points. Let’s have more systematic, regular surveys but also acknowledge they are only a snapshot of public opinion at a moment in time. Let’s debate contrasting methodologies and motives underpinning various polls too. Let’s get in place agreed and regular tracking polls. But until we get more clarity and agreement on the conduct of unity polls I am going to rely on election results as my best guide to the likely outcome of a border poll. Though not perfect, election results are for now our best guide. To quote Kevin Meagher’s analysis of recent elections in the North – “United Irelanders are well on the way to having the votes needed to win a border poll””.