A concurrent majority exists in the North and the South in favour of holding a referendum on whether Northern Ireland should remain in the UK or reunify with the rest of Ireland.
Support is high in the South, where three-quarters of the public favour a referendum with just 13 per cent opposed. In the North, a referendum is supported by just over half of the public and opposed by three in 10. Northern Catholics support a referendum to the same extent as citizens of the Republic. Northern Protestants are opposed to a referendum, but not strongly so: 39 per cent are in favour with 47 per cent opposed.
Asked when, if ever, the referendums should occur, about three-quarters of the public in the South, and Catholics in the North, favour a referendum within 10 years or so. Three-fifths of the Northern Ireland public agree with this timeframe, but one-fifth are staunchly opposed to ever having a referendum. While 42 per cent of Protestants support a referendum within 10 years or so, 33 per cent indicate that there should never be a referendum. There is a more positive Protestant disposition towards holding a referendum when the question is asked in this way.
Overall, Catholics in Northern Ireland are similar to the public in the South in strongly supporting a referendum within 10 years, while Northern Protestants are fairly evenly divided on the issue: their responses partly depend on how the question is asked.
A big majority in favour of Irish unification exists in the South, with two-thirds supportive and one-sixth opposed (top right). In the North, just over one-quarter favour unity, half want to stay in the UK, but a strikingly high number (18 per cent) say that they “don’t know”, and a further one in 20 say they would not vote.
Over the next decade, the almost one-fifth who do not know are persuadable, in either direction. The current bare majority support for the union, however, may fall in partial correlation with the further expected demographic decline in the proportion of Protestants in the North.
There is less enthusiasm for unity among Catholics in the North than among the Republic’s respondents. There is a majority among northern Catholics (55 per cent), while one-fifth of them favour staying in the UK. Remarkably, one-fifth are undecided.
Northern Protestants very strongly prefer remaining in the UK (79 per cent) to Irish unity (4 per cent), yet one in seven “don’t know”.
Our respondents, both North and South, indicated a high likelihood of turning out to vote if there was a referendum. On a 1-7 scale running from “definitely would not vote” to “definitely would vote”, 70 per cent of the South and 74 per cent of the North indicated that they definitely would vote (seven on the scale).
There is variation, however, when we examine the likelihood of voting by constitutional preference. The “don’t knows” in the North are unlikely to vote. While 81 per cent of those favouring staying in the UK indicate that they would definitely vote, almost all (94 per cent) of respondents favouring Irish unity said they would definitely vote. The pattern is the same in the South: 61 per cent of pro-UK respondents will definitely vote compared to 81 per cent of pro-unity respondents. According to these surveys, turnout would likely favour the pro-unity side both North and South.
When we examine attitudes by party preference, we find that supporters of Sinn Féin in the Republic are very supportive of a united Ireland: 85 per cent favour unity and 7 per cent favour Northern Ireland staying in the UK – resulting in net support for unity of +78. Sinn Féin supporters in the North favour unity, but less enthusiastically (net +57). The SDLP, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael voters are almost identical in their moderate nationalism: with net scores of between +31 and +34.
Alliance is moderately pro-UK. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) is as pro-UK as Sinn Féin in the South is pro-unity. The firmest views held by party supporters are those who vote Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), who are almost universally pro-UK.
When we assess the intensity of people’s views, the same pattern emerges. Respondents were asked to indicate, on a 1-7 scale, how strongly opposed to (1), or supportive of (7), Irish unification they are, and, on the same scale, their view of Northern Ireland staying in the UK. These questions allow us to identify the strength of support and opposition for each of the two options.
Sinn Féin voters in the South have an average score of 5.9 on Irish unity and 2.3 on staying in the UK – with a resulting net support for unity of +3.6. There is strikingly intense support for the status quo among DUP and TUV voters, with net unity scores of between -5.4 and -5.8 (approaching the maximum possible negative score -6). The intensity of UUP voters’ preferences is lower but still greater than that of Sinn Féin supporters in the South.
There is almost homogeneity of firm unionist belief among supporters of the unionist parties, but more heterogeneity among the “nationalist” parties, North and South. The unionist parties, however, are drawing on a declining demographic base.