The results are very interesting, and lend some support to the thesis of this blog – that Northern Ireland is a state on borrowed time, and will ultimately cease to exist. The question is 'when?'
A headline outcome of the poll is that a greater proportion of those polled consider themselves to be Irish (42%) than British (39%):
A further 18%, mostly Protestant, consider themselves 'Northern Irish' – a curious choice which demonstrates an unwillingness by a quarter of Protestants – even when given the choice – to describe themselves as British.
The bad news for nationalism in the poll is that, when asked how they would vote if there was a border poll today, 55% (including 26% of Catholics) said that they would vote to stay in the UK, against 36% who would vote for a united Ireland. As ever, though, there is some wiggle-room – 51% of those asked (and broadly similar proportions of both religions) said that the current economic problems in the south made the prospects of a united Ireland less likely. Since the south's economic problems could be only temporary, there remains a good possibility that if and when the southern economy recovers the proportion in the north who are hesitant about reunification on economic ground will reduce – eating into that 55/36 unionist lead in the hypothetical border poll.
Despite the current unionist lead in a hypothetical border poll, when respondents were asked what they expected the status of Northern Ireland to be in 2021, the proportion who expected that it would still be in the UK (42%) was exactly the same as the proportion (42%) who expected that it will have become part of a united Ireland. Even 24% of Protestants expect that Northern Ireland will be part of a united Ireland in barely 11 years!
- Firstly, a border poll held today would fail – but this is not a surprise. This blog has argued that the necessary nationalist majority will not arrive until some time during the 2020s,
- Secondly, the proportion of the population in Northern Ireland who view themselves as part of the Irish nation is large and probably growing. Although the poll did not report on the ages of the interviewees, it is likely that at the younger age groups the proportion who see themselves as Irish is higher than the average figure of 42%.
- Thirdly, unionists lack confidence in their future – although most Protestants, and a minority of Catholics, would vote to remain in the UK today, a higher proportion think that it will have left the UK in barely a decade. 6% of Protestants would vote for a UI today, but 24% think it will have happened in 10 years.
For nationalists this poll presents interesting challenges. The 24% of Protestants who think that there will be a UI in a decade or so need to be convinced that this UI will be a place in which they feel at home, thus bringing at least some of them from the 'reluctant but accepting' camp to the 'positive' camp.
The 24% of Protestants who see themselves as 'Northern Irish' need to be convinced that Northern Irish is compatible with Irish, and that the Irish nation includes them too.
Last but not least, nationalists north and south must work hard to improve the economies of both parts of the country – because it is a good thing in its own right, and also because it reduces the risks and uncertainties of reunification. The 51% who see the south's economic problems as a barrier to reunification could become persuaded for unity if the south rebuilds a modern and robust economy.
This poll supports a number of accepted truths – that Protestants are likely to support the union with Britain, and that Catholics are likely to support reunification with the south. It also supports the oft-quoted statistic that a quarter of Catholics would vote to remain in the UK (though it adds the interesting fact that 6% of Protestants would vote for a UI). The poll doesn't answer questions about the strength of feeling for these positions, but the fact that the proportion of Catholics who see themselves as 'British' (8%) is far lower than those who would vote to stay in the UK implies that their 'allegiance' is weak. The 4% of Protestants who consider themselves as 'Irish' is closer to the 6% who would vote for a UI.
Overall this poll shows the hill ahead that nationalism must climb – not a mountain, but not a walk in the park either.