The latest Lord Ashcroft poll or Northern Ireland was published on the 11th September. The results agrees closely with previous polls by Lord Aschroft, Delta Poll and Lucid Talk. Support for a United Ireland (UI) remains at around 50% and for the backstop around 60%.
Historically support for a UI had run at around 30% post the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998. This indicates that many cultural Catholics were content with the status quo. Even though NI remained part of the UK, those who identified as Irish had close parity of esteem and were content, given that things dear to that community, such as an Irish language act, seemed on its way.
A step change to c 50% happened not immediately after Brexit, but around the end of 2017 (Fig. 1). Possibly by this stage the implication of May’s hard Brexit stance (out of the Customs Union and Single Market) was becoming apparent. This could potentially have a devastating effect on Border Communities with their tightly integrated cross-border supply chains and even threaten the GFA itself.
There is also the fact that the NI Assembly was suspended in Jan ’17 and remains suspended. An agreed compromise fell because the Orange Order and allegedly the UVF, vetoed it, as it included Irish language provision. The seven Sinn Féin MPs do not sit at Westminster giving the DUP the ability to “run riot.” The Union is increasingly not representing the Nationalist community.
Meanwhile whilst the NI economy was close to recession, the IE economy, already well ahead, was booming (7.8% growth in 2017 and 8.2% in 2018). Productivity in IE is also rapidly increasing whereas NI productivity was actually lower than in 2008.
On social matters also IE has shaken off its image as a backward Catholic country. The Abortion Referendum of 2018 was, to many, a social turning point, and many in NI now look South with more envy than pity.
There is also a very strong European Identity amoung Cultural Catholics and indeed some Liberal Protestants. NI can stay in or rejoin the EU very simply if it votes for a United Ireland.
There are other interesting aspects of the Ashcroft poll, as it looks at support for the Backstop and is analysed by community (Nationalist/Unionist) and by age cohort. Findings regarding a UI, the Backstop and some analysis of the increasing non aligned community will be presented.
A United Ireland?
What is new about this poll, even though as in Fig.1 the trend is fairly flat, is that for the first time there is a majority for a United Ireland (UI) from a straight question if there were a “border poll” tomorrow how would you vote? Previous polls only produced UI majorities to hypothetical questions such as in the case of a no-deal Brexit how would you vote? It could be argued that a poll on hypothetical questions is less valid.
The other important finding, which reinforces findings from other polls is that there is a big difference between age cohorts. Young people are far more pro a UI than older groups. Indeed in this poll, the only cohort which favours the Union is the 65+ age group.
In general Catholics are Nationalist and Protestants Unionists (of course the correlation is not 100%) and the polling matches what might be expected from the demographics on display in Fig. 2 from the 2011 census.
More recent surveys such as the 2018 School Census show that the predominance of Catholics over Protestants in the younger cohort is, if anything, accelerating with 164,353 Catholic school pupils vs 107,695 Protestant – which is a 60%-40% split in favour of Catholics (if others are excluded).
According to the Good Friday Agreement if it appears that there is a majority in favour of a United Ireland, a border poll (referendum) should be triggered:
1. The Secretary of State may by order direct the holding of a [border] poll for the purposes of section 1 on a date specified in the order.
2. Subject to paragraph 3, the Secretary of State shall exercise the power under paragraph 1 if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.
3. The Secretary of State shall not make an order under paragraph 1 earlier than seven years after the holding of a previous poll under this Schedule.
One could argue that as the threshold has now been crossed, that a border poll should be called.
There is however no guidance as to how this majority should be determined; by opinion poll, NI Assembly seats or otherwise.
These are however turbulent times and while the landing zone of Brexit is still so uncertain, it may be better to await a while, even if a simple majority has been reached.
The poll is also likely to have a few percent error.
It is almost certain that there are marginally more cultural Catholics than Protestants in NI today but:
- Cultural Catholics are younger. Those under 18 can’t vote.
- The over 65’s cohort, where there is a majority Cultural Protestant demographic, vote in far greater numbers than younger cohorts (true in most western democracies but particularly in the UK).
- Many younger Catholics are fed up with the Sectarian nature of NI and vote for non-aligned parties.
- Unless there is good reason to change the status quo, people tend to vote for quiet lives and what they know.
The other issue is that the Irish Government (An Rialtas) had assumed that the prospect of a United Ireland was not likely till, at earliest, the late 2020s; the shift in NI opinion post the Brexit Ref. has been dramatic. It is clear that An Rialtas needs to be urgently making preparations. Unfortunately Brexit, in Ireland just as in the UK, is soaking up nearly all the bandwidth and capacity of the government and civil service.
Given that a United Ireland would solve the contentious issues around the Backstop, some view this as an opportunity. There are three major issues however.
NI is much poorer than IE, despite the fact that it is subsidised by an estimated £10bn per annum from the UK exchequer. Given the IE economy is only around one tenth the size of the UK, is it affordable?
How does Ireland make the Unionist community feel welcome, and how best to cherish their British identity in a United Ireland?
Brexit has been bad enough in increasing sectarian tensions and forcing people to choose. A Brexit poll could ramp the dial up to ten. NI is still a very traumatised society and needs time to heal. Another decade of the status quo would have been very helpful. Sometimes however change is forced upon us at a time not of our choosing.
There are also numerous issues around health (NHS/IE mixed model), education, taxation, federal/unity structure etc. that need examining. There also legacy issues regarding pensions, NI share of the UK National Debt which will need to be tied down by agreement with the to governments. With the best will in the world this will take time. The last thing that is needed is a the Border Poll resembling the Brexit Referendum without the destination absolutely tied down.
Another consideration is that it is far better to have a 60-40 split than a 50-50 one and demographics are such that each additional year is likely to give a greater majority for a UI.
The Ashcroft poll is in line with previous polls giving a roughly 60%-40% split in favour of the backstop. What is striking of course is that there is a major difference between the two communities, with Nationalists almost universally favouring the Backstop and a super-majority of Unionists against.
Despite the fact that the Backstop makes absolutely no difference in terms of the constitutional position of NI, psychologically it distances NI from the UK. As with Brexit, gut emotion can trump rational thought. Psychologically the Backstop will be seen by many as a stepping stone to a UI, welcomed by Nationalists, but detested by Unionists.
Rationally of course Unionists should embrace the backstop. If not a minority already, they will become an ever decreasing one. The survival of the Union depends on keeping Nationalists happy. There are also very good economic arguments, in that the Backstop may give NI the best of both worlds and turbocharge its lack-lustre economy.
Others and Neithers?
One disappointing aspect of the poll is that NI is no longer well defined by a Nationalist/Unionist divide. There are an increasing number of “Others” – people who neither identify as Nationalist or Unionist. These vote for example Alliance, Green and People Before Profit (a Socialist party). How does this growing community feel? Are there any clues in the Ashcroft Poll?
In the main findings a proxy may be how well Naomi Long, the Alliance Party leader is regarded by the two communities. As Fig 4 shows Naomi Long is the most highly regarded politician in the survey, slightly ahead of Leo Varadkar. Interestingly she has a higher approval rating among Nationalists than Leo Varadkar, but a lower approval rating amoung Unionists.
It is also interesting how Boris Johnson is viewed by the two communities – the highest approval rating of any politician among Unionists, but one of the lowest among Nationalists. As an aside it seems that the Nationalist community has views similar to the general “Remain” community in the UK and Unionists views similar to the “Leave” community.
On the basis of this proxy “Others” seem more aligned with Nationalists views, but Naomi Long is widely admired and personal factors may skew the data.
Buried in the data pages of the Aschroft poll there is some further detail which has been analysed by Faha on the BangorDub site. “Others” are included. The full numbers for a Border Poll are shown in Table 1
|How would you vote in a Border Poll?|
|Stay in UK||6||29||89|
The Other community is in favour of a United Ireland, but less strongly so than the Catholic community. There are also more undecided voters.
On voting for another Brexit Referendum there would again be a majority of staying tn the EU (60%). The unaligned community are even closer to the Catholic community than on the Border Poll. It is clear that EU membership is very important to this community.
|How would you vote in a Brexit Referendum?|
|Remain in EU||91||81||21|
Support for the Backstop in Northern Ireland remains fairly constant at around 60%. Support for a United Ireland remains around 50%. There is little sign that the polarisation between the Unionist and Nationalist community is getting any smaller.
It seems also on a range of issues the Nationalist community is closely aligned with the wider UK “Remain” community, whereas the Unionist Community is more aligned with the UK “Leave” community.
The “Other” community, which will be vital in the outcome of a Border Poll is very strongly pro-EU and leans towards a United Ireland. Indeed a UI seems almost inevitable if things remain on their current trajectory and the UK leaves the EU.
Even if a Border Poll is not imminent, serious preparations need to be made. South Korea has had a Ministry of Reunification since 1969, it is strange that Ireland has nothing similar. Such preparations as are being made are by individuals such as Senator Mark Daly, grass roots movements such as Think32 and University Groups such as UCL’s Constitutions Unit. Once the Brexit Referendum plays itself out, much of the freed An Rialtas bandwidth should be directed towards a United Ireland.
The DUP’s hardline anti EU stance and rejection of the backstop is out of line with the majority of opinion in NI, but plays well with their base. It is telling that the most popular featured politician among the Unionist community is Boris Johnson.