Majority of northern voters reject need to become Irish citizens in the event of unity, poll shows

Series shows enthusiasm for a Border poll, but populations far apart on many other issues

NI poll image week two

There are sharp divisions between voters in Northern Ireland and the Republic over citizenship in a possible united Ireland, with a majority in the Republic saying northerners must become Irish citizens, while a majority in the North resist this.

A large majority of voters in Northern Ireland (66 per cent) say they should not have to become Irish citizens in the event of a united Ireland, but should be allowed to remain British citizens only, new research finds.

But almost half of all voters in the Republic (47 per cent) say that if there is a united Ireland, people in Northern Ireland must become Irish citizens. In addition, more than one in 10 voters (11 per cent) in the South believe that people from the North could not be British citizens, saying that they “must become Irish citizens only”.

Poll findings lay down a challenge to advocates of unity

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The research was carried out as part of the North and South series for The Irish Times and Arins, which is a joint project of the Royal Irish Academy and the University of Notre Dame in the US dedicated to analysing and researching Ireland North and South. It consisted of two opinion polls in Northern Ireland and the Republic on attitudes to a possible united Ireland and a series of focus groups in both jurisdictions.


Both polls surveyed more than 1,000 people each in Northern Ireland and the Republic and the margin of error is estimated at plus or minus 3 per cent.

Poll Tuesday

As we conclude this phase of the North and South series, it’s timely to look back at the main findings.

The first thing that the surveys found is that majorities in Northern Ireland and the Republic want a Border poll. That is quite a stark finding and food for thought for both governments.

There the agreement ends, though. There are very different conclusions in both parts of the island about the question of potential Irish unity. Though advocates of a Border poll insist that unity is inevitable, the findings of this survey, reported on the first day of publication in early December contain no evidence of this. The poll found a clear majority — 2-1 among voters who declared a preference — in the North against unity. By contrast, nearly two-thirds of all voters in the South said they would back it.

But once you begin to look under the bonnet of the polling numbers it is clear that in both societies views about the political and constitutional future are in flux. In Northern Ireland, the identification of religious background and politics is weakening and the views of the “neithers” — the growing group in the middle who class themselves as neither orange nor green — will ultimately be crucial if a vote happens. There is a huge number of “don’t knows”, nearly a fifth of all voters.

It is also clear voters will conduct a pretty severe evaluation of the case for unity. In the quantitative polls, conducted simultaneously North and South, and in the focus groups which discussed these issues in both jurisdictions, voters displayed a hunger to know exactly what a united Ireland would mean for their daily lives — not just in its constitutional niceties, but in the bread and butter matters like the health service, economy and security.

Poll Tuesday

If those who favour Irish unity want to make progress towards making their objective a reality and success, the research suggests they face two tasks, distinct but related: they need to prevail upon the “persuadables” in the North to vote for a united Ireland and they need to convince the “unpersuadables” — the sizeable hard core of unionists and loyalists who say that they would find Irish unity “almost impossible to accept” — to moderate their position and accept the result of a referendum even if the unionist side loses. On both fronts, the united Irelanders have their work cut out.

Today’s findings contain further evidence which queries the southern appetite to do this. Requiring northerners to become Irish citizens — even if they retain British citizenship as well — would require a change to the Belfast Agreement guarantees, which are intended to extend beyond any future decision to have a united Ireland. It’s hard to see that happening, but the fact that a majority in the South favours such as move is unlikely to ease unionist fears about the nature of a future united Ireland.

And those fears are acute for a substantial minority of the Protestant-background population in Northern Ireland. Among a greater number, though, was a willingness — even if they didn’t like the prospect of a vote in favour of a united Ireland — to accept the result. The focus groups showed that undecideds — and some unionist-inclined voters who said their minds could be changed — are, in the phrase used by Brendan O’Leary and John Garry, “persuadable”. How interested voters in the Republic are in persuading them is another matter. The series resumes in January.