Susan McKay: Deeper debates on Ireland should follow RTÉ-BBC surveys

Polls do not capture ‘cut off your nose to spite your face’ reality of North’s politics

Northern Ireland’s Minister for Finance, Arlene Foster, defended the DUP’s use of a “petition of concern” to block marriage equality. Photograph: Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

The days of dying for Ireland are over, and so are the days of never, never, never. So much so that fewer than 40 per cent of people polled in the Republic even say they want a united Ireland any time soon, while over 80 per cent of northern Protestants say they would have no issue with someone belonging to them marrying someone of a different religion.

Apart from making you wonder why it was then that we had to endure those decades of murder and sectarian hatred, last week’s RTÉ-BBC cross-Border survey pretty much reinforced what other recent polls have suggested: that we live in a country in which liberal and tolerant attitudes are thriving, with the Border lying across the island like a carelessly slung-aside scarf, irrelevant.

It turns out that the minority of people who believe that abortion should be available on demand is now bigger than the minority who believe it should be banned in all circumstances. A large majority think it should be available in a range of extreme circumstances including risk to the mother’s life and where the pregnancy has resulted from rape.

Most people are comfortable with the prospect of a family member marrying someone of their own sex. We are, on the whole, happy with our lives. The “great sea change” envisioned by Seamus Heaney has come about.


It was odd then that the first audience contributor to RTÉ's Prime Time debate on the survey declared that not only was she determined Ireland should be liberated from her colonial shackles but that those who disagreed should "go back to Britain", and that her response was met with rowdy applause.

National question

When the BBC's Stephen Nolan brazenly demanded of Jimmy Deenihan if the Republic could actually afford to take on the North, the Minister for the Diaspora haplessly replied, "Well, no, really." Sinn Féin's Pearse Doherty was dancing as fast as he could but there was no retrieving the national question.

It was unfortunate that the poll did not break down the attitudes to same-sex marriage in terms of religious background, since, in the North, just a day before the poll was published, after a majority of MLAs voted for legislation to make it legal, the DUP used a petition of concern to block the decision. Defending this during the debate on the poll in the BBC studio in Belfast, Minister for Finance Arlene Foster basically said they did it because of their own religious beliefs, and because they could. The UUP, whose leader fancies himself as a modern sort of chap, also opposed the legislation.

Opinion polls do not capture the “cut off your nose to spite your face” reality of Northern politics. Voters may have progressive social views but they also require their politicians to dominate “the other side”. Northerners, I’m afraid, also have form on lying to pollsters. During the conflict, plenty would claim they were going to vote for the “nice” Alliance Party but went on to do no such thing.

Gender and emasculation

There were six people on the RTÉ Prime Time panel, five of them men. Four were politicians, along with historian Diarmaid Ferriter. I'd heard him on the radio that morning supporting the director of the National Library in her call for more funds to protect the nation's most precious documents. Otherwise, he said, the library would be "emasculated". I was the lone woman but we had the indomitable Miriam O'Callaghan as presenter.

However, as the State’s institutions begin to roll out their 1916 commemorative programmes, an embarrassing inattention to gender balance is emerging.

The poll included a question about whether or not people had crossed the Border. Most had, though one cheery Dubliner said it had never occurred to him to do so. Of course, the journey for some may be from their front door to the bottom of their garden. A supplementary question involving exchange rates and the pursuit of litres of vodka might have been revealing. Not to mention one addressing the implications of a potential British exit from the EU.

For all that, the Prime Time-Nolan Live collaboration was an inspired idea that should be followed by a series of deeper debates. Whatever about uniting, we can't afford not to explore the gap between what we say we want and what our politicians deliver in both jurisdictions on this small island.