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  • Writer's pictureGreg O'Loughlin

Making Sense Of Opinion Polls On Irish Unity

In July the Royal Irish Academy published a paper by Professor Doyle in which he examined the changing results emerging from opinion polls. The DCU academic pointed out that prior to the Brexit referendum, “repeated opinion polls suggested that half or more of those who voted for Irish nationalist parties in Northern Ireland, did not want to call an immediate referendum on Irish unity and if a referendum were called, they would vote against immediate change.”

However this has shifted significantly. In December 2018 a poll found that:

  • 35% of nationalists wanted a border poll to be held in 2019,

  • 79% wanted one within 5 years, and

  • 89% wanted a poll within 10 years.

In the same survey, 93% of nationalists said they would vote to leave the UK, and a further 5% of nationalists ‘probably would’, if the poll was held in 2019, in the context of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

Professor Doyle examined the attitude to unity of what he described as ‘middle ground voters who largely supported UK membership before Brexit, but who are now much more divided in their views.” He concluded that “centre ground voters are much closer in their views to nationalists, than unionists and their views on Irish unity are now clearly related to a desire to retain as close as link as possible to the European Union.” The closing of the gap between those for and against Irish Unity or the retention of the Union with Britain was illustrated in September 2019 when a poll by Ashcroft Polling revealed that “45% of respondents said they would vote to stay in the UK, and 46% said they would choose to leave and create a United Ireland – a lead of 51% to 49% for Irish unification when ‘don’t knows’ and those who say they would not vote are excluded.”

Doyle described this shift in polling results as marking a “watershed” in public opinion in the North. Two years later A Sunday Times poll in January 2021 “showed a majority in Northern Ireland in favour of holding a poll on Irish unity and when asked how they would vote, 46.8% said to stay in the UK, 42.3% chose a united Ireland and 10.7% were unsure. In that poll a majority of those under 44 years of age supported Irish unity.”

Professor Doyle also revealed that among those who did not vote for a nationalist or unionist party in any of the last 3 elections – 38% said they would vote for a United Ireland, 36% said they were unsure but would vote, and only 26% said they would vote to stay in the UK.”

Inevitably there are differences between pollsters. This can result from the questions asked and how they are framed; the political climate when the poll is taken; the relative party strengths at the time and whether the polling is face to face or by telephone. Doyle also pointed out that polling in a “post-conflict and deeply divided societies is challenging. People can be reluctant to express an opinion to strangers. Polls throughout the conflict under-represented SF and over-represented Alliance, for example.”

Professor Doyle concludes: “What is clear is that more sophisticated polling is needed, both north and south. The existing polls in the Republic of Ireland all suggest that a referendum would be carried by a large majority, but as the Irish parliament will have to take a lead on defining both the process of public debate and the proposed nature of a united Ireland – polling on the detail of specific proposals, ranging from the health system, to pensions and potential devolution, after they have been publicly debated, would be useful.

In NI, there is no clear majority for a united Ireland at this time, but opinion is more finely balanced than ever before and there is a significant bloc of voters who will only decide after more detail is available to them. At present, the majority of credible polls of likely voters, show the percentage support for remaining in the UK in the mid-to-high 40s, and therefore the currently undecided will determine the final outcome.”

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