The Irish Times view on the North and South project

New research shows a diversity of views on Irish unity and on the question of a Border Poll which will provide much food for thought for the Irish and British governments and political parties on both sides of the Border.

The findings of the opinion polls and focus group research for the North and South project, which begins in today’s Irish Times, will offer a comprehensive and independent insight into the views of people in Northern Ireland and the Republic on the constitutional future of the island, the factors that will influence the decisions of voters in any future referendums and also on the broader questions of political identities and relationships in the homeplace we share.

The project, which will run over the coming days and into January, is a joint undertaking between The Irish Times and ARINS, which is a collaboration between the Royal Irish Academy and the Keough-Naughton Centre for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame. It aims to provide independent, unbiased information to all participants in the debates on the future of Ireland.

Today’s first instalment of the series shows that the long-standing desire for Irish unity remains as strong as ever among voters in the Republic, with two-thirds saying they would vote in favour of reunification in a referendum. Data to be reported over the coming days will shed light on how deeply or otherwise this desire is rooted.

It is a different story north of the Border, where the margin against unity among voters who declare a preference is almost two to one. However, the data shows a high level of “don’t knows”, at 19 per cent, rising to almost a third of voters among those who come from neither a Catholic nor a Protestant background.

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The results of the focus group research confirm that this is not a question that is soundly settled for all time. Perhaps even more so than the Republic, the North is a society in flux, where many people are questioning traditional political certainties. That works both ways – 21 per cent of voters from a Catholic background say they would vote to remain in the United Kingdom.

Striking also is the desire for referendums within a decade in both parts of the island. And while this reflects among some Northern unionists the desire to have a referendum while they are confident of winning, it is a clear statement of the public’s will all the same.

This finding also signals a conflict between the desire of the public for a vote and the provisions of the Belfast Agreement. The Agreement is clear that the British government – and it is London’s decision, ultimately – should only call a Border poll when it appears likely to pass.

And while successive British governments have declined to say what factors would be taken into account in making that judgment, today’s numbers make clear that such a poll would be very unlikely to pass in Northern Ireland. But its citizens want a vote anyway. It is one of many intriguing and challenging findings that will emerge from the series.