Debate over symbols of a united Ireland shows up a big North-South difference

A sense of unease: Potential changes to flag and anthem make voters in Republic less likely to support unity

A large proportion of the public in the South retreat from the vision of a united Ireland in which changes are made to political symbols and some institutional rules to accommodate northern unionists.

The idea of creating a new flag or a new national anthem for a united Ireland fills many southerners with unease. In both cases, almost half of the public in the South (47 or 48 per cent) are less likely to vote for a united Ireland and only 15 per cent are more likely – resulting in a net influence score of -32 or -33.

In contrast, among the public in Northern Ireland, a new flag and anthem tends to make people more, rather than less, likely to support unification (net scores of +6 and +7).

There are also North-South differences on the subject of potential unionist involvement and influence in the government of a united Ireland.

NI poll graphic Monday

The proposal that in a united Ireland unionist politicians would be guaranteed to be part of the government in Dublin did not have an effect, overall, on the southern public (one quarter would be more likely, and one quarter less likely, to vote for unity under this condition). However, the proposal had a pro-unity effect on the public in the North (almost a quarter were more likely, and only 6 per cent less so) to support unity.

A bigger North-South difference emerged in response to the idea that in a united Ireland unionist politicians would have the power to veto new laws. This scenario makes a united Ireland appear more attractive to northerners: almost one fifth are more likely, and one seventh less likely, to vote for unity (a net score of +5, and a higher score among Protestants of +12).

However, unionist veto powers in a united Ireland would be anathema to a large minority in the South: 45 per cent would be less likely to vote for unity and only 14 per cent more likely (a net score of -31).

There was a sense of surprise, shock, and some distaste that such changes – on the flag, anthem, Commonwealth, and political institutions – could happen

The idea of a united Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth also strongly deters people in the south from voting for unity (net score of -41). Rejoining the Commonwealth attracts voters in the North (net score of +9, and a higher net score among Protestants of +14). A smaller effect in the same direction emerges for the idea that in a united Ireland, Ulster Scots would, in Ulster, have equivalent status to Irish.

Overall, the pattern is clear. A plurality of the southern public does not currently appear amenable to the types of changes to the South that might help accommodate, symbolically and politically, northern unionists in a united Ireland. Differently put, when such changes are proposed, northerners’ likelihood of voting for unification increases, but southerners’ support for unity wanes.

This pattern of southern unpreparedness for change, or of inflexibility, also emerged strongly from our southern focus group discussions, which were made up of ‘undecided’ or ‘persuadable’ voters.

Among them, there was a sense of surprise, shock, and some distaste that such changes – on the flag, anthem, Commonwealth, and political institutions – could happen. Participants essentially assumed that in a united Ireland, the North would be absorbed or assimilated, with little need for change down south. As one participant said: “I just figured they join us and that will be that”.

NI poll graphic Monday

On the issue of how much power unionists should have in a united Ireland, one southern participant responded: “None (laughing) … they shouldn’t have a lot of say, like they do at the moment in the North, because it’s going to be a united Ireland – so they are going to have to listen to everybody … the unionists don’t like to listen to anybody.”

And this participant, similar to others, strongly dismissed the idea of veto powers: “No party should be allowed to block new laws coming in no matter what or where they are from.”

After rejecting possible changes, some participants reflected on the discussion and admitted inflexibility

Negative reaction to the idea of joining the Commonwealth included one participant declaring: “Oh God no (laughing), you are just asking for trouble there … well it’s a kick in the teeth isn’t it … it’s like spitting on your ancestors’ grave for everything they fought for.”

Another predicted “civil unrest” and that “there would be murder, and I mean that”. There was no recognition that the Commonwealth is no longer called British and is overwhelmingly composed of republics.

Almost universal rejection of changes to the anthem or the flag included some flippant comments (”with a bit of a Union Jack in the middle of our Tricolour, is it?”), affirmations of national identity (”I like my Irish heritage and I want to have my flag”) and staunch opposition (”no way in hell that it would ever be considered to have a new anthem or new flag”).

After rejecting possible changes, some participants reflected on the discussion and admitted inflexibility. One commented: “But that’s us wanting to keep it our way”. And another concluded that “…it’s very much on our terms … come and join us but by Jaysus we are not going to change you know”.

NI poll graphic Monday

These findings highlight a key challenge for advocates of Irish reunification. Should these advocates inform the southern public that they should become more flexibly open to changing long-cherished symbols, institutional arrangements, and membership of international organisations, in order to welcome northerners inclusively into a new Ireland?

If so, they should perhaps start by addressing possible future unionist membership of the government, which is not anathema to the South and is seen in the North as a relatively attractive potential component of Irish unity.

Or are advocates of reunification essentially implicitly happy to demand the assimilation of all northerners? If so, and if southern opinion on these questions is judged set in stone, should that lead to a switch in the appropriate model for Irish reunification, one in which a devolved Northern Ireland would persist? We shall examine that question on Saturday.