Northern Ireland: Polls can provide more confusion than clarity

‘Catholics may emerge as largest population group but still not be a majority,’ says expert

The 2021 Northern Ireland census figures, when they are published – probably late the following year – will concentrate minds and define the Irish unity debate for the years ahead.

In the meantime, Sinn Féin and the Ireland’s Future group, who are leading the campaign for a Border poll on a united Ireland, take heart from the demographic figures currently available in relation to the religious breakdown of pupils and students attending Northern Ireland’s schools and universities.

Opinion polls are less conclusive – different polls provide different figures to suit the aspirations of either nationalist or unionist – although generally they do point to keener nationalist interest in the idea of a referendum on a united Ireland, whenever that might happen.

In the 2011 census, the gap between those from Protestant and Catholic backgrounds was just 54,000, with 48 per cent (864,000 people) from Protestant households and 45 per cent (810,000) from Catholic households.

For a Border poll to be successful, those aspiring for unity must command 50 per cent plus one of the vote, although some such as the late Seamus Mallon have warned of the dangers of a loyalist backlash in settling for such a narrow outcome.

In terms of schools and universities in Northern Ireland, the “Catholic vote” is around that 50 per cent figure, although not all Catholics vote and not all Catholics vote for nationalist parties. Still, it’s a yardstick.

Equally, it must be said not all Protestants vote or vote for unionist parties.

The North’s Department of Education figures for the year 2019/2020 show that from nursery up to second level, Catholics make up 50.6 per cent of the schools’ population (176,408 pupils) while Protestants make up 32.3 per cent (112,637 pupils).

There are 59,883 students in the “other Christian/non-Christian/no religion/not recorded” category (17.2 per cent).


The trend is the same in Northern Ireland’s two universities, Queen’s and Ulster University. In the year 2018/2019 there were 20,865 students (49.5 per cent) from a Catholic background attending these universities compared with 13,145 (31.2 per cent) from a Protestant background.

There were 8,150 students (19.3 per cent) in the “other” group, classified as “other”, “unknown” or “no religion”.

At schools and university level, the Catholic population respectively is just above or very close to the magical 50+1 figure.

It’s a crude business and again it must be stressed that the statistics need not translate into a similar vote for a united Ireland, as Dr Paul Nolan, an expert in social trends and demography, points out.

While these figures give great hope to those pushing for a Border poll, Nolan says that the North’s labour force survey “shows the growth momentum of the Catholic community is slowing, and furthermore the real growth has been in another category, those who do not self-identify as either Catholic or Protestant”.

He says that the proportion of the population classified as “other/non-determined” has more than doubled, from 6 per cent to 17 per cent since 1990, and that in the 16-24 age cohort it has more than trebled, from 7 per cent to 22 per cent.

Nolan adds: “If this trend were to continue it may block the Catholic community from crossing the 50 per cent line. Catholics may emerge as the largest of the three main population groups but still not be a majority.”

He emphasises: “And, of course, not all Catholics are nationalists, a point that is generally accepted but frequently forgotten when forecasts are made.”

Hearts and minds

The constitutional hearts and minds battle therefore mainly will be seeking to persuade a sufficient number of the 20 per cent to opt for the union or a united Ireland.

Another element worth examining for constitutional preferences are voting trends. Figures from the Northern Ireland ARK election website for the five past elections in the North show that on each occasion unionist parties out-polled Sinn Féin and the SDLP, and the smaller nationalist parties where they were running, by a margin varying between about four and eight percentage points.

The nationalist vote generally has been around 40 per cent, or just below that figure.

Even in the March 2017 Assembly elections, where – prodded in part by the DUP’s Gregory Campbell’s “curry my yoghurt” lampooning of the Irish language – Sinn Féin came within 1,200 votes of the DUP and one seat shy of equalling the DUP’s number of seats, unionist parties and candidates still out-polled nationalists by close to seven percentage points.

And, alarmed by how close Sinn Féin had come to being top party in the Assembly poll, in the subsequent Westminster election in June that year unionists were galvanised into delivering 49.2 per cent of the vote to unionist candidates while Sinn Féin and the SDLP took 41.1 per cent of the vote.

There is therefore still that 10 per cent gap that nationalists have to make up to strengthen their case for seeking to compel the Northern secretary to call a Border poll. They still have a fair amount of catching up to do.

Looking at opinion polls can provide more confusion than clarity. For instance, in February this year two polls offered widely different results on the constitutional question.

A poll by Liverpool University and Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council found 29 per cent would vote for a united Ireland “tomorrow” while 52 per cent would vote against. Excluding the “don’t knows”, it had 65 per cent favouring the union, 35 per cent for unity.


The same month a LucidTalk poll, commissioned by the investigative website The Detail, examined how Brexit was affecting views on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. It found 46.8 per cent would vote to maintain the union while 45.4 per cent would vote for a united Ireland.

Those figures were flipped around in a survey by pollster Lord Ashcroft, former Conservative Party treasurer, in September last year. If there were a Border poll tomorrow, that poll had 46 per cent saying they would vote for a united Ireland and 45 per cent voting to stay in the union.

When the “don’t knows” were excluded the result was 51 per cent for unity, 49 per cent for the union.

Any such referendum in the North would require a parallel poll in the Republic to determine if the whole island was of one mind on the issue. In February, in a general election exit poll, some 57 per cent of people said there should be referendums in the Republic and Northern Ireland within the next five years, with some 40 per cent against that idea.

Younger people were most in favour of dual polls while older people, many who would have a visceral memory of the Troubles, were less inclined to back such referendums.

Some 75 per cent of voters aged 18-24 said there should be referendums while 60 per cent aged 25-34 also favoured such plebiscites. Some 62 per cent of people aged 35-49 also were in favour.

That figure dropped to 54 per cent of people aged 50-64, while those aged 65 or over were the only age group where a majority did not want to see a Border poll. Just 47 per cent were in favour of a unity referendum, with 49 per cent against.

These are all interesting indicators but they don’t appear strong enough to persuade a Northern secretary that now is the time for a Border poll.

In truth, neither the current demographic figures nor the opinion polls provide definitive answers to the constitutional question. But they do demonstrate that for unionists and nationalist it is still all to play for, and will be for some time to come.