Most people in State still favour a united Ireland but don’t expect one any time soon

Official Ireland understands negative effects of a British disengagement from the EU

The late Charles Haughey, who told Geraldine Kennedy in 1980 he was “hopeful” of seeing a united Ireland in his lifetime. There seems little general enthusiasm now for Sinn Féin’s idea of a Border poll. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

The late Charles Haughey, who told Geraldine Kennedy in 1980 he was “hopeful” of seeing a united Ireland in his lifetime. There seems little general enthusiasm now for Sinn Féin’s idea of a Border poll. Photograph: Peter Thursfield


Irish unity is a distant project measured by surveys of public opinion North and South or by the statements of most political leaders. The issue is not salient for the Republic’s voters, even if it makes a difference for core party supporters. Sinn Féin’s call for a Border poll has attracted little outside support. Most are satisfied with existing structures and happy to give the Belfast Agreement more time.

Yet during commemorations of the turbulent decade of 1912-1922, it would be presumptuous indeed to assume we can look back from a position of relative stability. Ireland was battered by huge external events and trends then and is certainly not immune from them now.

Several of Ireland’s major parameters are in flux. The European Union must decide how to deepen the euro zone if it is to survive and then how to bring people and voters dissatisfied with austerity and mistrustful of leaders along. The United Kingdom faces a fateful decision on whether to stay in the EU, and a related one on Scottish independence. The United States is deciding how to manage relative decline and how it should relate to a more multi-polar world.

Expect the unexpected
The best advice analysts who failed to predict the end of the Cold War in 1989 or the Arab uprisings of 2011 can offer is expect the unexpected and examine carefully what you take for granted. Scenarios allow us think about the future’s uncertainties and contingencies.

Polling evidence on unity is difficult to interpret because questions differ and contexts change. Distinguishing between soft questions concerning principled attitudes and harder ones dealing with practical ones helps explain the contrast between enduringly favourable attitudes towards unity in the Republic and those which qualify support if it means paying more taxes, incorporating the North in our political structures or assuming responsibility for its security problems.

An Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll last November shows a majority want a united Ireland and are prepared to pay more taxes for it, but don’t expect it to happen for a long time. Indifference and ignorance play into these attitudes, which vary across parties and regions. The Belfast Agreement would require a unity referendum in both parts of the country.

The latest Northern Ireland Life and Times survey released last month shows a complex range of attitudes. The proportion of all respondents thinking there will be a united Ireland has fallen from 29 per cent in 2003 to 15 per cent in 2012, and 41 per cent think it very unlikely. There has been an increase in the number of Catholics who favour staying in the UK, though overall numbers expressing this positively have fallen from 72 per cent in 2010 to 63 per cent last year. Interestingly too, there is a fluctuating cross-community group of between one-quarter and one-third of voters describing themselves as Northern Irish, reflecting the bedding-down of the agreement and a desire to keep their political autonomy under British or Irish rule.

This relative Irish stability may be contrasted with a more unsettled UK. Its place in the world depends a lot on EU membership; were that to change in a 2017 referendum determined largely by greater English than Scottish or Welsh hostility, the knock-on effect on Ireland would be large, since the EU border would then coincide with the Irish one. Latest research confirms the strong tide of Euroscepticism driving English nationalism threatens to undermine British unity by antagonising Scottish and Welsh voters who value EU membership.

Northern unionists are more aware of the Scottish than the EU threat to their political identity. But Peter Robinson has just come out against EU withdrawal, having already vehemently opposed Scottish independence. He can see the potential linkage between the external and internal shocks facing the UK. Sinn Féin is strangely quiet on both counts.

Britain vs the EU
Official Ireland also understands how disruptive a British withdrawal from the EU would be for Ireland and how Scottish independence would weaken England’s willingness to fund Northern Ireland and Wales. A Northern Ireland economy with a 64 per cent state share receiving an annual block grant of £9.6 billion from London, and an annual primary deficit of up to 40 per cent would be a daunting task to absorb for an Ireland coming out of the EU-International Monetary Fund programme. All the more reason why such shocks are not officially contemplated or if so strenuously resisted.

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