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Southern support for united Ireland is wide, but not deep

While voters in Republic back unity, they seem unwilling to make changes to accommodate it

On Saturday, we reported that two-thirds of all voters in the Republic say they would vote in favour of a united Ireland in a referendum. When don’t knows are excluded, that’s a 4-1 majority over those who say they would vote against the proposal.

Today’s instalment of the North and South series examines what would influence people’s voting choices in advance of a poll and what their main concerns would be about a united Ireland in the future.

The results, along with the accompanying focus groups, enable us to ask: how deep is this wide commitment in the Republic to a united Ireland? The answer: not very deep.

Large numbers of voters in the Republic suddenly become less likely to vote for a united Ireland if the new entity has a different flag and anthem. In each case, more than a third of voters (34 per cent) say they would be “a lot less likely to vote for a united Ireland” if it meant a change of anthem and flag.

NI poll graphic Monday

A further 14 per cent would be “somewhat less likely” to vote for a united Ireland if it had a new anthem and a further 13 per cent “somewhat less likely” if it had a new flag — getting on for nearly half of all voters who object to changing these political symbols.

The focus group discussions also indicated strong resistance to potential changes to the flag and anthem — and the focus groups were taken among undecided voters.

North and South, Ireland is divided on the unity question

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Many southern voters are also resistant to the idea of a unionist veto on new laws, with 35 per cent saying it would make them less likely to vote for a united Ireland, though they are relaxed on mandatory unionist participation in government.

Voters in the Republic are also wary of the prospect of violent resistance by militant loyalists, with significant numbers saying that it would affect their vote. Three in 10 respondents said that “significant loyalist paramilitary violence before the referendums” would make them “significantly less likely to vote for a united Ireland”, while a further 12 per cent said it would make them “somewhat less likely” to vote for it.

This is sharply different to Northern Ireland, where voters are much less likely to be concerned about paramilitary violence — 63 per cent say it would make no difference to them.

NI poll graphic Monday

The focus groups confirmed significant concern from southern voters about the potential for violence, and specifically that it could spill over into the Republic.

“I think there is a real tangible risk of civil unrest,” said one participant. “I mean, I don’t want to be sensationalist about that. But there’s no way that that’s going to come easy. It’s as simple as that.”

Northern Ireland voters are very concerned about the future health system in any united Ireland. More than half say they would be more likely to support unity if it “adopted the health system used in the UK”, while almost as many say that it would make them less likely to vote for a united Ireland “if it adopted the health system used in the Republic of Ireland”.

The economy is a major concern on both sides of the Border. Voters say the effect on their own personal finances would influence their vote, but there is also significant concern among southern voters about the costs of unification — as summed up by one focus group participant: “Maybe I’m just a Debbie Downer. I just can’t, I just can’t see this working without us actually going bankrupt in the Republic.”

What are the political implications of these findings? The shallowness, or conditionality, of the commitment to a united Ireland among many southern voters will not come as a surprise to people who have studied the subject in detail in recent years. But it presents a corrective to the assumption that a vote in the Republic would be a foregone conclusion. The misgivings of southern voters provide a campaign blueprint for those opposed to the move.

NI poll graphic Monday

But there is encouragement for those who favour a united Ireland, too — as well as food for thought for those who say that unity would be an opportunity to create a new state, a new and improved Ireland. An Irish NHS could persuade many northerners to vote for unity; so could a publicly funded secular school system. This is also something that is very popular in the south. If voters could be convinced that they would personally benefit financially, it could also bolster support for unity, North and South.

If the arguments for unity are to be won, it seems, they will be won not with windy rhetoric but with worked-out and practical plans and probably over a long period of time.

In the absence of reassurances that things will change for the better rather than the worse, politically and personally, voters are likely to follow their conservative instincts to retain the status quo. In addition, many voters in the South would have to be persuaded to persuade northerners about unity through changes and concessions — something they are disinclined to do.