The majority of people in Northern Ireland would vote to remain in the United Kingdom in a referendum on the issue, according to the latest survey on the topic.
However a majority of those who took part in the survey said they thought a referendum in Northern Ireland 10 years from now would see a vote in favour of a united Ireland.
Interviews with focus groups found that a majority feared that a referendum on the border could provoke a return to violence.
The Lord Ashcroft Polls survey involved 3,301 adults in Northern Ireland being interviewed online and the results being weighted to be representative of all adults in Northern Ireland, as well as interviews with eight focus groups.
It found that one in ten voters were undecided on the issue of a united Ireland, and that support for a united Ireland declined sharply with increasing age.
The survey comes in the wake of one for The Irish Times which showed that a large majority in the Republic are in favour of a united Ireland in the long term, but are opposed to a new national flag, a new national anthem, paying higher taxes, or curtailing public expenditure, to facilitate it.
The Ashcroft poll found that, among those who expressed a view on how they would vote in a referendum, 54 per cent were in favour of remaining in the United Kingdom, while 46 per cent were against.
Only 33 per cent of those polled, and just 56 per cent of Unionists, said they thought the London government would prefer if Northern Ireland remained in the UK.
Only 52 per cent of all voters in Northern Ireland thought the Dublin government would like to see the unification of Northern Ireland and the Republic, the poll showed.
While many but not all of the participants in the focus groups thought a border poll was likely within the next few years, many were nervous about the prospect, including some who favoured a united Ireland in principle, the pollsters said.
“They tended to think that a referendum would be divisive, re-awakening tensions rather than resolving them, and that a return to violence would be more than likely.”
“Voters as a whole were more likely to think that prices, housing costs, tax rates and unemployment would be higher in a united Ireland than that they would be lower, while public spending and welfare benefits were more likely to be lower,” the pollsters said.
“Business investment was thought more likely to be higher [in a united Ireland]. Voters thought opportunities for young people and (by a small margin) parity of esteem were more likely to be better than worse in a united Ireland – though 78 per cent of Unionists disagreed on that point.”
Brexit and protocol
Protestants (86 per cent) were more likely than Catholics (64 per cent) to say they had never changed their mind about Northern Ireland’s position in the UK, Ashcroft Polling said.
It said 24 per cent of those aged between 18 and 24 years were in favour of a united Ireland, but only 25 per cent of those aged more than 65 years held the same view.
While 88 per cent said they thought Brexit had contributed to shortages of food and other goods in NI shops, Unionists were more likely to blame the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The poll found that 78 per cent of Unionists said the protocol had been a major factor in shortages.
Just over one in five (21 per cent), including 56 per cent of 2017 Sinn Féin voters, said they thought there were no problems with the protocol.
Sixty-seven per cent of voters - including 34 per cent of Unionists – said they thought Brexit had made Irish unification in the foreseeable future more likely.