Debate on state of unionism is hosted at Maynooth University

Online conference is titled Northern Ireland at 100: Pro-Union Voices

Polling in a recent BBC Spotlight documentary marking the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland was referenced in the debate. Photograph: iStock

Consecutive surveys on the future of Northern Ireland have flagged approximately two-thirds support for union with Britain, a debate on the state of unionism has heard.

Professor Peter Shirlow, director of the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool, said such a consistent outcome questioned the need for a referendum.

Citing four polls between 2017 and 2020, conducted respectively by Ipsos-MORI, Queens University, Liverpool University, and Life and Times, he said between 60 and 65 per cent had consistently backed union as compared to about 25 per cent supporting a united Ireland.

“So even going back to the evidence, why are we saying that this is changing?” he said.


“Around 20 per cent of the Catholic population in the surveys wish to remain in the union. The equivalent the other way is about 5 per cent of Protestants. And the other thing we know is from our surveys and census work, our small but important immigrant community are very pro-union as well.”

Prof Shirlow was one of four contributors at the Maynooth University-hosted online conference, Northern Ireland at 100: Pro-Union Voices.

Others also questioned both the wisdom of a referendum and the appetite for a change in the status quo as demonstrated in various research.

Brian Dougherty of the Londonderry Bands Forum referenced polling in a recent BBC Spotlight documentary marking the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland which showed just 51 per cent of would-be voters in the Republic would back a united Ireland.

“That’s an horrendous starting point. I think that the figures for the Good Friday Agreement were up in the high 90s. So if only 51 per cent at the moment within the south are prepared to take that risk then it’s a very low starting point,” he said.

The same Spotlight polling found 49 per cent of the North’s residents favoured remaining a part of the UK.

However, Mr Dougherty told the forum that should a border poll materialise in 10 to 15 years time, young people were “consistently stepping away from the romantic ideal of a united Ireland” and would more likely focus on economic and other issues.

“Why would you leave the safety net of the seventh-highest economy in the world to go into the 34th? As we look into the future those are the issues that people will vote on,” he said.

Alison Grundle, former special advisor to the Independent Unionist Claire Sugden in the Northern Ireland Assembly, said that while she identified as both Irish and British, she did not support the holding of a border poll given the complexities of its outcome.

“I don’t want there to be a border poll. I think it’s the wrong question; I think it’s going to lead to the wrong conversations,” she said.

“We have heard for a century that majoritarianism is wrong therefore how could it be right, to take us to a better place, to go down the path of majoritarianism again? What I want to see is more conciliation.”

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times