Unionist public more open to special status than leaders

Surveys show island of Ireland controls acceptable as ‘frictionless’ Border’s price

When the Taoiseach recently proposed reviving the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC), he was acknowledging the significance of a little-known but potentially very important body. Created by the Belfast Agreement but carrying over a structure dating from 1985, the conference has not met at ministerial level since 2007, though British and Irish officials continue to function under the formal umbrella of its secretariat in Belfast.

The BIIGC symbolises the ‘special status’ that was conferred on Northern Ireland by the Good Friday Agreement. This gave the Irish Government a formal voice on all non-devolved Northern Ireland areas, and on a range of matters affecting the two sovereign states. As later defined, these included all-island matters (human rights, justice, security, drug trafficking, broadcasting and legacy issues) and British-Irish ones (asylum, immigration, the common travel area, and the EU dimension).

Importantly, the BIIGC was not envisaged as a talking shop. Its meetings were to be “regular and frequent”, with a commitment by both governments to “make determined efforts to resolve disagreements”, though each would retain sovereignty on matters within its own jurisdiction.

Thus, discussion of “special status” for Northern Ireland is nothing new. Northern Ireland already has special status. Indeed, it has had this, in different forms, since 1921. The question is whether this status might be redefined once again in the Brexit negotiations.


‘Special status’

How acceptable might such an adjustment of “special status” be? We have explored this in two recent surveys of representative samples of the Northern Ireland population, in March and September 2017. Responses to three questions are of particular interest.

First, in September 2017, 49 per cent agreed and 39 per cent disagreed with the statement that “People should be prepared to accept border controls between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, if this is agreed in the Brexit negotiations between the Government and the EU” (with 12 per cent neither agreeing nor disagreeing).

Surprisingly, willingness to accept such controls was stronger among Leave voters (64 per cent agreed), supporters of unionist parties (59 per cent) and Protestants (54 per cent). We might put this down to a willingness to live with east-west border controls as the price of getting Brexit across the line. Lower levels of agreement from Remain voters (44 per cent), nationalist party supporters (47 per cent) and Catholics (43 per cent) probably reflect hostility to any kind of new border controls.

Second, also in September, 64 per cent agreed and 25 per cent disagreed with the statement “After the UK leaves the EU, there should be free movement across the Irish Border, as at present, but border controls between the island of Ireland and Great Britain” (with 11 per cent undecided). Admittedly, this is a complex “double” question, and respondents are likely to have had retention of a “soft” land border uppermost in their minds, since the shape of any sea border had been little discussed and lacked immediacy.

This time, though, those agreeing were more numerous among supporters of nationalist parties (75 per cent), Remain voters (73 per cent) and Catholics (68 per cent). But agreement was also high among unionist supporters (56 per cent), Leave voters (also 56 per cent) and Protestants (60 per cent), possibly reflecting acceptance of border controls as the price for keeping the land border as “frictionless” as possible.

Broad agreement

Third, in March 2017 we asked for reactions to the statement “After the UK leaves the EU, Northern Ireland should have a special status, by which it would continue to be linked to the EU”. There was broad agreement (67 per cent, with 27 per cent disagreeing and 6 per cent undecided).

Once again, supporters of nationalist parties were most likely to agree (89 per cent), as were Catholics (87 per cent) and Remain voters (85 per cent). Agreement was a good deal lower, but still substantial, among Protestants (49 per cent), unionist supporters (44 per cent) and Leave voters (32 per cent), no doubt reflecting, at least in part, the stances taken by the parties.

This apparent flexibility of the public is at odds with the more rigid positions of the political parties. In October 2016, the Assembly rejected a proposal to recognise the “unique status” of Northern Ireland – but only by one vote, in a division that set all unionists against all non-unionists (apart from People Before Profit, whose two MLAs abstained).

Since the Assembly election of March 2017, however, a clear majority of MLAs belong to parties that support “special status” for Northern Ireland. In this, they appear to be in line with mainstream public opinion – though opinion can shift radically as issues are politicised.

The debate about “special status” (however labelled) needs to take account of what this actually means. At present, this is entirely unclear. The sea border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain has been a reality since 1921, and its existence need not threaten the union, which received substantial guarantees under the Belfast Agreement.

These guarantees hold even if the sea border is reconfigured in a Brexit deal. Public opinion data suggests that voters may be more adaptable than their leaders in accepting such innovative solutions to the problems thrown up by Brexit.

John Coakley and John Garry are professors in the school of history, anthropology, philosophy and politics at Queen's University Belfast. Coakley is a fellow of the UCD Geary Institute for Public Policy, and Garry is principal investigator of the ESRC-funded study described in this article

TECHNICAL NOTE: The surveys were designed by QUB researchers Coakley and Garry, and the fieldwork was conducted by Ipsos MORI between September 7th and 27th (1,015 face-to-face and in-home computer assisted personal interviews with a representative sample of the Northern Ireland population), and March 3rd and 13th (1,198 telephone interviews with a representative sample who had been initially interviewed at the time of the 2016 Assembly election).