Integrated vs devolved: two possible forms for united Ireland that divide opinion North and South

North favours a devolved model, while southern voters prefer an integrated model within which Northern Ireland would cease to exist as a political unit

NI poll image week two

There are numerous possible models of a united Ireland. Our Irish Times/ARINS respondents were guided to the two different types of Irish unity that we believe are most feasible.

An “integrated” united Ireland would mean that “Northern Ireland would no longer exist as a political unit, and decisions would be made by an all-island parliament and government in Dublin”. In contrast, a “devolved” united Ireland would mean that “Northern Ireland would continue to exist… as a devolved region within a United Ireland,… keep its own Assembly and powersharing executive, and powers over policy areas such as health, education, and policing”.

Citizens in the Republic are much more in favour of the integrated model. Asked to indicate, on a 1 to 7 scale, how strongly they oppose or favour the integrated model, 52 per cent are strongly in favour (either 6 or 7 on the scale) and 12 per cent are opposed (1 or 2 on the scale), with an overall net support of +40 (see graphic below, “two types of united Ireland”). In contrast, only one sixth strongly support the devolved model and two fifths are strongly opposed (net support of -23).

In contrast to the Republic, the Northern Irish public is more supportive of the devolved model (with a net score of +6) than the integrated model (with a net score of -22). Protestants are extremely opposed to the integrated model: seven in 10 are strongly opposed, and only one in 20 strongly support it. But Protestants actually have a positive rating for the devolved model (with a net score of +7). Northern Ireland Catholics are positively disposed to the integrated model, but less so than the Republic’s citizens, and are also – slightly – supportive of the devolved model in contrast to the negative disposition of the southern public.

NI Poll week 2

The acceptability of each model will be politically crucial. Democracy depends upon “loser’s consent”, whereby citizens regard a result as legitimate and acceptable even when they disagree with it. We asked our respondents how they would react if the referendums, North and South, involved a choice between staying in the UK or an integrated united Ireland, and voters in both places chose an integrated united Ireland.

Some 67 per cent of southerners said that would “happily accept” the result, while 4 per cent said they would “find it almost impossible to accept”, resulting in a net acceptance of +63 (see table underneath graphic). In a complementary version of the question, the southern public would accept a devolved united Ireland, but less enthusiastically (+34).

The northern public resembles the southern public regarding the acceptability of the devolved model, but northerners are substantially less enthusiastic than southerners about the integrated model. Northern Catholics have high acceptance rates for both models, but more so for the integrated model (+66, almost identical to the southern acceptance rate).

Most strikingly, Northern Ireland Protestants vary in acceptance of the two models. Over one third (36 per cent) say that they would find the integrated model almost impossible to accept, while 19 per cent say that they would happily accept it. The proportions are flipped for acceptance of the devolved model: 20 per cent of Protestants would find it almost impossible to accept while 30 per cent would happily accept it.

Similar patterns

We thus find similar patterns when we examine support and acceptability: southerners are more favourably disposed to the integrated than the devolved version of Irish unity, while northerners overall, and particularly Protestants, are more positive towards the devolved than the integrated model.

Focus groups help us understand why people hold the views they do on these different models. Our focus groups involved members of the public who are “persuadable” on the Irish unity question: they are likely to vote in any referendum on unity, but they either do not have a clear position, or they hold a view that is open to change.

Participants in Northern Ireland agreed that the integrated model was much more likely than the devolved model to lead to conflict: “…the thought of violence if you did that, that would be just throwing hot water on it … you can’t just jump in with both feet.” The devolved model had the advantage of being much more of a compromise because it involved less change. One participant suggested that it “would be easier to sell to a lot of people… you’re still keeping Northern Ireland as its own identity, to a degree, as it’s continuing to exist”.

However, southern participants did not view the devolved model as a proper united Ireland. To them, it seemed to be merely a continuation of the present situation: “what difference is the devolved one, like how is that a united Ireland?” The devolved model was seen as “tokenism”, “pussyfooting”, and an option for “the snowflakes”; it would cost southerners a lot of money, but they wouldn’t actually have real unity. Some southern participants highlighted that the integrated model was the more romantic version and liked the image of the map of the island without a border having any significance: “…being an island and being one. And you know, the unity of that, it’s romantic”’

Both northerners and southerners highlighted a key problem with the devolved model. The political institutions do not seem to work well in the North: currently there is no executive, so the institutions would need to be fixed before any possible devolved united Ireland.

These findings pose challenging questions for advocates of a united Ireland. What precise model of unity should be advocated? And how should those displeased with the preferred model be approached and persuaded? We know from our previous small-scale citizens’ assemblies on these issues, both North and South, that southern support for the integrated model remains robust after learning and deliberation, while northern Protestant acceptance of the devolved model declines somewhat after deliberation.

If the Irish Government’s preferred version of Irish unity is the devolved model, then a key priority will be to work hard on changing southern opinion while maintaining northern support for its acceptability. If, by contrast, its preferred model is an integrated Ireland, that is the model least liked by northern Protestants, which poses its own challenges.