Taoiseach ‘not surprised’ at poll showing low level of support for Irish unity in Northern Ireland

Sinn Féin leader says ‘everything’ should be discussed in preparing for a united Ireland, including the anthem and flag

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said he is “not surprised” by research outlining how just a quarter of people in Northern Ireland would vote in favour of a united Ireland.

“Opinion polls will never unite Ireland,” he said, adding that the results show “we’ve a lot to do”.

Mr Martin was responding to the results of an Ipsos opinion poll published in The Irish Times suggesting that Northern Ireland would vote decisively against a united Ireland.

Just 26 per cent of people surveyed were in favour with 50 per cent against.


Almost half of voters in the South said that changes to the national anthem and flag would make them less likely to vote for a united Ireland, according to the poll.

Mr Martin indicated that such opinions can change but also said: “It shouldn’t be about flags and emblems” and the “substance of the relationship” and “quality of life” are what matters in achieving Irish unity.

He said the poll results do not mean that it is time to set up a citizen’s assembly on Irish unity – an action Sinn Féin has previously called for.

Mr Martin said he believes his Government’s Shared Island initiative “is the way forward” as it is “very strong” and “deals with a whole range of different communities that the model of a citizen’s assembly could never emulate or achieve”.

He said the initiative will continue once he switches roles with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar on December 17th highlighting the €1 billion available over 10 years for cross-Border projects and how it is a “core part of the Programme for Government”.

Mr Martin was speaking in Dublin Castle after announcing more than €50 million for a new suite of Shared Island programmes including €7.6 million for all-island tourism measures and €11 million for biodiversity actions on peatlands restoration.

On the issue of the Irish national anthem and flag, Mr Martin said: “We have to acknowledge different identities on the island”.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said “everything” should be discussed in preparing for a united Ireland, including the anthem and flag.

Asked about the poll by reporters, Ms McDonald said “the Tricolour is our flag for me: it captures the orange and the green for two great traditions on the island and are on” and Amhráin na bhFiann was her preferred anthem. “But let me repeat the comment: This is a real conversation. This isn’t an abstraction ‘never never fourth green field’ position. We need to start talking about how do we organise the services that we all rely on, how do we build the best opportunities for all of us...

“I really don’t think we should start from the position of winners and losers. Everything to be discussed, every single thing will be discussed absolutely,” Ms McDonald added.

Of the political priorities, Mr Martin said he believed people in the North and the Republic “want to see things working, want to see their politicians get on with the institutions that have already been created by the Good Friday Agreement... That’s the first step”.

He added in recent years he has detected “real impatience” among people on the ground in the North during periods when powersharing institutions are not up and running.

The Stormont Assembly is to be recalled this week as rival parties attempt to ramp up the pressure on the DUP to end its boycott of powersharing.

A petition tabled by Sinn Féin has gained the requisite 30 MLA signatures to secure a recall of the crisis-hit institutions. The Assembly will now be recalled on Wednesday at 12pm but, unless the DUP drops its stance, the bid to restore the devolved legislature will end in failure.

In Dublin, Mr Martin was asked at the press conference if he was concerned as leader of Fianna Fáil that little more than a quarter of Northern Ireland voters would vote in favour of a united Ireland.

The Taoiseach replied: “I’ve looked at this through a different approach.

“Opinion polls will never unite Ireland.”

He said polls – while “important research” – are from “a particular time”.

“Since the day we signed the Good Friday Agreement, it’s been a journey of trying to build reconciliation and mutual understanding and we have a long way to go.”

He said that in some respects he is “not surprised” by the poll findings but: “What I’m more concerned about is the substance of really learning to share this island together.”

Mr Martin referred to calls – of the kind made by Sinn Féin – for a Border poll within five years saying “it’s a good campaign... but it doesn’t change a whole lot”.

The Taoiseach continued: ”I’m much more focused what I would call... the substance of the issues facing us.

“We’ve a lot to do now and those polls show that.”

He said there are a lot of issues that people are concerned about including peace and healthcare.

Mr Martin said that before the Belfast Agreement he told people who asked at international conferences that he believed Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution could be changed.

The territorial claim to Northern Ireland was subsequently removed from the Constitution after the May 1998 referendum in the Republic.

Mr Martin said “we’ve got to just be careful about an opinion for that particular point in time.

“There’s a lot of work has to go into all sorts of scenarios that people come to change opinions.”

Asked if the flag and anthem could be changed to achieve a united Ireland Mr Martin said the issue of flags and emblems “erupted” in Northern Ireland in recent years.

“It shouldn’t be about flags and emblems,” he said.

“It has to be about the substance of the relationship... the quality of life.”

He suggested areas in health and education where cross-Border co-operation could improve quality of life including the new national children’s hospital which he said is “a good opportunity for paediatric care on the island of Ireland”.

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times