Mick has dug deep for his reflections into the Northern Ireland general election survey commissioned by Liverpool University’s Institute of Irish Studies and conducted by Social Market Research (SMR). In this piece I wrote before I logged into Slugger (and I frankly don’t want to waste it) I gnaw more at the bone of opinion on unity.
The survey and its questions surely show how sensitive to events is general opinion and how volatile the events affecting long lasting themes.
On the abiding issues of the legacy for instance, is it clear what a Truth and Reconciliation Commission might entail especially when set against the Stormont House Agreement Bill for an independent historical investigations unit bitterly opposed by a unionist lobby and to which the government is still committed?
Methodology as well as context like that above is important for gauging the often quite small differences in the potentially crucial swing votes. The survey is based on a representative sample of Northern Ireland electors aged 18+. In total, interviews were conducted with 2003 electors representing each of the 18 Northern Ireland parliamentary constituencies. It was administered on a face-to-face basis in respondent’s homes using Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing or CAPI. 3.1.1 Sampling…
Overall 28.4% state they are unionist and 24.6% nationalist. The largest group at 39.6% are neither unionist nor nationalist. This might be thought of as fertile ground for the Alliance party. But their share has been boosted by defectors from elsewhere rather than the uncommitted. And sooner later they may have to jump off the border fence or find a position that straddles it more deliberately , such as more equality all round and cross border links within a reviving GFA that preserves basic UK sovereignty.
There remains the issue of the use of signifiers, whether unionist/nationalist or Catholic /Protestant. With the decline of religion as a signifier of identity, Catholics may exceed Protestants without reaching an overall majority.
Summary of main Findings from 2003 Surveyed Households:
1. Growth in inter-community support for Truth and Reconciliation Commission
2. Alliance Party electoral success based upon gaining previous voters from DUP and Sinn Fein
3. Protestant support to remain in UK rising whilst Catholic support declining
4. Major rejection of goods being checked between NI and GB and NI and Ireland
5. Most socially liberal group are young Protestant non-voters followed by their Catholic equivalent
6. Major attitudinal divides are not along traditional lines but between younger and older and voters and non-voters
7. Growth in female voters but majority of youth do not vote
8. The largest share of the electorate consider themselves as neither unionist nor nationalist
9. Those undecided on NI’s constitutional future are key to that future.
Union or Unity?
• Between 2010 and 2019 the share of Protestants who support remaining in the union grew from 90.3% to 94.5%.
- In the same period the share of Catholics supportive of remaining in the union declined from 17.8% to 13.6%.
- More voters agree (40.3%) than disagree (30.9%) that the reunification of Ireland will happen.
- 76.9% of non-voters who stated a preference are pro-remain within the UK. In 2019 non-voters numbered c500k. Unionism has a significant problem in not attracting pro-union members of the electorate to vote compared to nationalists and republican parties.
- The electoral success of the SDLP has changed their voter profile since 2017. The SDLP in gaining votes, primarily in Foyle and South Belfast, have ended up with a 22.6% decline in their voters who wished to remain in the UK.
Professor Jon Tonge from the University of Liverpool, said: “In terms of a border poll, election results may be a less accurate a guide to the desire for reunification especially when it is considered that 76.9% of non-voters who stated a preference are pro-Union. In 2019, non-voters numbered circa 500,000.”
As well as non-voters, a critical group in deciding the outcome of any border poll will be Alliance voters. The survey found that 58.8% of Alliance voters support the Union and 25.6% want Irish unity.
The survey was also run in 2010, allowing comparisons as to how voters have shifted in that period. Reflecting the increased tribalism in Northern Ireland, between 2010 and 2019 the share of Protestants who support remaining in the Union grew from 90.3% to 94.5%, while the share of Catholics supportive of remaining in the Union declined from 17.8% to 13.6%.
More voters agree (40.3%) than disagree (30.9%) that the reunification of Ireland will happen.
The survey also found a significant shift in favour of a truth and reconciliation commission, up from 31.5% in favour in 2017 to 45.7%.
A more decisive majority – 62.8% – would now vote to remain in the EU, the poll found, with just one in 10 people saying that they would not vote in a second EU referendum.
An identical percentage of people – 68.5% – expressed their opposition to checks on goods either crossing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, or across the Irish border.
The study found that 69.5% of Catholics, compared to 10.7% of Protestants and 22.4% of the non-religious support an Irish Language Act.
Some 72.1% of people supported the right to an abortion in some circumstances.
However, most were supportive in the highly restrictive circumstance of where the mother’s life is in danger – the law as it was in Northern Ireland until last year’s change. Just 9.2% of women and 5.4% of men supported abortion up to 28 weeks.
Although polling evidence is contradictory – with Belfast firm Lucid Talk’s polls consistently suggesting higher levels of support for Irish unity than most other polls – next week polling will be released which for several reasons will make grim reading for republicans. ( He wrote this last week).
Even after all the turmoil of Brexit, of three years without devolved government, of the cash for ash scandal, of the distrusted Boris Johnson as prime minister, there is scant evidence of the sort of surge in support for Irish unity which would be necessary to win a border poll.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London