Linda Ervine places herself in the “don’t know” group when it comes to a united Ireland, saying: “I’m one of those people that will have to be convinced.”
Almost one in five voters in Northern Ireland are in the same category, according to an Ipsos poll published this week.
With some 50 per cent opposed to a united Ireland and just 26 per cent in favour, Northern Ireland would, at present, vote decisively against Irish unity.
Ms Ervine – from a Protestant background and sister-in-law of late Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) leader David Ervine – heads up the Turas Irish Language Project in East Belfast.
She was a participant in a discussion on “identities and meanings” at the second Shared Island Forum hosted by the Irish Government in Dublin Castle on Monday.
Ms Ervine and others who took part in the discussion spoke to The Irish Times afterwards, offering their views on the poll results.
She said “change is hard” for the “don’t knows”, a factor she noticed in Scotland in the build-up to the rejected independence referendum there.
“It’s much easier to stay in the status quo – even if the status quo doesn’t 100 per cent suit you.”
She identified issues in the debate such as a wish to retain the National Health Service, or fears among voters that they will be financially affected by a united Ireland.
Ms Ervine adds: “My greatest fear of a united Ireland is the trouble it’s going to bring, because it will bring trouble – even if it’s only short-lived. It’s going to bring violence and that is a massive deterrence.”
Professor in politics at Ulster University, Duncan Morrow, responded to the poll results saying there is “an awful lot of uncertainty, and this idea of a simple solution like a united Ireland is very difficult for people to manage because they know that things are complicated”.
He says there has “been an alienation from Britishness through the Brexit process” but adds: “Whether that jumps straight into a united Ireland is quite another question.”
Prof Morrow said the 50 per cent who said they would vote against a united Ireland was a “low mark” and that the “big ‘don’t know’ group is actually interesting for the first time”.
Dr Mary C Murphy of University College Cork recalled a campaign slogan from the Nice referendum, “if you don’t know, vote no”, saying it was “really powerful”.
She suggested it captures “some of what the ‘don’t knows’ [in the poll] are experiencing in the sense that we don’t know what you’re offering us in a united Ireland”.
Fianna Fáil’s Cllr Uruemu Adejinmi said “continuous communication” and “engagement” would be a way of convincing the undecideds of Irish unity.
She said it is not about “shoving things down people’s throats” and that helping to find solutions to the issues people in the North are facing could help win their confidence.
Another participant in the Shared Ireland Forum, Kyra Reynolds – a development worker with the Bogside and Brandywell Initiative – told the event she considers herself Northern Irish, “not just a binary of orange or green”.
She told The Irish Times the debate in the North has always been either to be with Britain or with Ireland, and asked: “Well why not by ourselves?”
She said there are experiences and challenges linked to growing up in the North and living there that only people from Northern Ireland would understand.
“Can an identity, a territory, whatever, not be built around that commonality?” she asks.
She said the idea of an independent Northern Ireland should be talked about, adding: “I just feel like, why not just try something else?”
Asked about the impact that a possible Sinn Féin-led government in the south could have on the Shared Island initiative or the push for a united Ireland, Ms Murphy there are “way too many contingencies” to consider.
She said these include the make-up of the next government, what happens with the Scottish Independence movement, and how long the cost-of-living and energy crisis persists.
Ms Murphy added: “It’s very hard to pursue a radical constitutional project if you’re in the midst of an economic crisis, or any kind of crisis for that matter.”
Prof Morrow said it could have the effect of galvanising the movement in favour of a united Ireland or have the opposite effect, and “it might do both”.
Ms Ervine said Sinn Féin entering government in the Republic “could cause more polarisation unfortunately”.
She said: “I’m not blaming Sinn Féin on that. Sinn Féin are who they are but it’s the situation unfortunately.”