Leave voters prefer hard border to staying in customs union – poll

Majority in North think Brexit makes Irish unification in foreseeable future more likely

Two out of three British voters who backed Brexit would prefer to see a hard border in Ireland than for Britain to remain in the EU customs union, according to a new poll.

Only one in three British voters said they could not accept a different status for Northern Ireland after Brexit and six out of 10 Leave voters said that leaving the EU was more important than keeping the United Kingdom together.

The poll by Conservative peer Michael Ashcroft found that, given a straight choice between a hard border and remaining in the customs union, 41 per cent of all voters would choose a hard border compared to 32 per cent who would remain in the customs union. Leave voters would choose a hard border by 66 per cent to 10 per cent and Conservative voters would make the same choice by 67 per cent to 14 per cent.

Remain voters would stay in the customs union rather than see a hard border by 55 per cent to 21 per cent and Labour voters would make the same choice by 47 per cent to 25 per cent.

More than nine out of 10 unionists in Northern Ireland, and three out of four Conservatives in Britain, agreed that the Border issue is being “deliberately exaggerated by politicians and others to suit their own political agenda.”

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Lord Ashcroft said that most British voters thought Brexit was taking too long, with Leave voters often blaming those who want to soften or delay Britain's exit from the EU.

“Given these views - impatience with the process, determination for the UK to operate an independent trade policy, and the suspicion that Brexit opponents are deliberately throwing up hurdles - it is not hard to imagine how Leave voters would react if told the UK would not be taking back as much control as they hoped because of the Irish border, an issue they believe is being blown out of proportion,” he wrote.

‘No view’ about North

Only one in three voters in Britain said it would be completely unacceptable for Northern Ireland to have a different status in the EU from England, Scotland and Wales. Three in 10 said such an outcome “would not be ideal, but would be acceptable as part of a deal to get a sensible Brexit arrangement”. And most British voters said that they did not have a view about whether Northern Ireland should remain in the UK, saying it was for the people there to decide.

Lord Ashcroft’s poll found that, asked to choose between keeping the UK together and leaving the EU, 63 per cent of British voters would leave the EU, compared with 27 per cent who would keep the UK together. Among Conservative voters, 73 per cent would choose leaving the EU with just 22 per cent saying they would keep the UK together. Labour voters would choose leaving the EU over keeping the UK together by 50 per cent to 34 per cent.

“Those who have pondered Brexit’s consequences for UK union have usually focused on the resentment felt in places where majorities voted to remain in the EU,” Lord Ashcroft wrote.

“But there is another risk: that a question like the Irish border, which most Leave voters see as a relatively minor practical issue that could be resolved, should prevent the majority getting the Brexit they think they voted for.”

Irish unification

Lord Ashcroft conducted separate polls with 3,294 voters in Britain, 1,666 in Northern Ireland and 1,500 in the Republic, along with focus groups in a number of towns and cities.

A majority of voters in Northern Ireland said they thought Brexit had made Irish unification in the foreseeable future more likely, a view shared by just four in 10 in the Republic. Asked how they would vote if there was a border poll tomorrow, 49 per cent of voters in Northern Ireland said they would vote to stay in the UK, while 44 per cent would vote for a united Ireland.

In the Republic, 35 per cent of voters said they would like to see a united Ireland in the next few years but 56 per cent said it would not be practical or affordable in the immediate future.

Voters in Northern Ireland were more pessimistic about their own future than they were when they looked across the Border at the Republic. 64 per cent said Northern Ireland was on the wrong track, compared to 25 per cent who thought it was on the right track. But 55 per cent of those in Northern Ireland said the Republic was on the right track, compared to 35 per cent who said it was on the wrong track.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times