Strong support for Irish unity revealed in the latest Irish Times Ipsos/MRBI poll is no great surprise but the apparent shallowness of the sentiment, as shown in responses to more detailed questions, is telling. It is difficult not to conclude that the people of the Republic favour unity in theory rather than in practice.
Taken in isolation the headline figure would suggest there is a strong desire for a united Ireland, with 62 per cent of people saying they would vote in favour in a referendum and only 16 per cent saying they would vote against. The remainder said they had no opinion or would not vote. Unsurprisingly the strongest support comes from Sinn Féin voters with 78 per cent in favour. Fine Gael voters are the least enthusiastic with 58 per cent in favour but there is strong support for the prospect across the political spectrum.
However, when it comes to the practical question of whether people would be prepared to make any financial sacrifices for unity by paying extra tax or accepting cuts in public services, a different picture emerges. A whopping 79 per cent would not accept higher taxes and an identical figure rejected the notion of agreeing to any cuts in public spending.
It is understandable that a significant proportion of people are likely to be against extra taxes for any reason but the scale of the rejection does raise a fundamental question about how serious the aspiration for unity is. The commitment was put into even starker relief when people were asked about their willingness to make concessions on symbolic issues that will not affect their pockets.
The prospect of a new flag or new national anthem to reflect the identity of unionists was rejected by more than 70 per cent of respondents. On both these issues Sinn Féin voters were stronger in their opposition than supporters of other parties. When it came to the suggestion that Ireland should rejoin the Commonwealth to reflect the new Ireland that would be brought into existence by unity, the mood was the same with more than 70 per cent of people saying no.
There were just two issues on which a majority of people, by a small margin, were prepared to make concessions. One was the prospect of having unionist politicians as part of a government in Dublin which was supported by 44 per cent and opposed by 42 per cent. The other was having closer ties to the UK which had the support of 47 per cent with 42 per cent opposed.
Taken in the round the responses in this poll indicate that the professed desire of the people of the Republic for a united Ireland does not run particularly deep when set against some of the practical issues that could be required to make it possible. That is something that politicians in both parts of the island should take into account in any debate about a Border poll.