In functioning democracies the results of elections and referendums are accepted by the losers. Democracy cracks at its foundations when “losers’ consent” diminishes and voting outcomes are rejected. False cries of vote-theft may do lasting damage.
If referendums were held, North and South, on the issue of Irish unity would the results be accepted as legitimate in both jurisdictions? The question asked would be highly controversial: to which sovereign state should the people and place of Northern Ireland belong? And, in the North, the referendum would occur in a deeply divided place with a recent history of violence.
The extent to which those on the losing side consented to the outcome would depend a lot on how the referendums were conducted, how well informed the publics were, and the transparency of the count.
And the status quo has an-inbuilt advantage; people know it and have lived it. If the referendums resulted in Northern Ireland staying in the UK, this outcome would be readily accepted, North and South.
In the North just 2 per cent would find it “almost impossible to accept”, while one fifth would accept it somewhat reluctantly (”would not be happy but could live with it”). Three quarters would “happily accept it”. Only 4 per cent of Catholics in the North would find it impossible to accept. Zero per cent of Protestants would feel the same way. Prospective acceptance levels in the South are almost identical to those of Catholics in the North.
Among southerners and northern Catholics, there would be very high levels of acceptance of referendum outcomes mandating unification. Only 4 per cent of the southern public, and 2 per cent of Catholics in the North, would find Irish unity almost impossible to accept. About three-quarters of the South, and northern Catholics, would happily accept unity.
Would losers’ consent prevail among northern Protestants? One third of them would find a pro-unity outcome almost impossible to accept. A further two-fifths of Protestants would reluctantly accept, and one fifth would happily accept.
What exactly ‘almost impossible to accept’ means is obviously open to interpretation. It certainly cannot be read as support for emigration or insurrection should the referendum vote call time on the union with Great Britain.
Nor should it be read to mean automatic rejection of the result, or the process which delivered it. But it certainly indicates strong hostility toward losing, and anticipation of prospective grief.
The research also examines acceptance levels broken down by supporters of political parties.
Among southern Sinn Féin voters (12 per cent, northern Sinn Féin voters (8 per cent), and Fianna Fáil voters (7 per cent), a small minority would find a pro-Union result “almost impossible to accept”. No voters for Alliance, the SDLP, or any of the unionist party voters would feel that way.
Finding Irish unity almost impossible to accept is rare among voters for Sinn Féin (north or south), the SDLP, and Fianna Fáil. It is slightly more common among Fine Gael voters (6 per cent of them).
DUP and TUV voters are the least prepared to lose: 47 and 55 percent respectively would find referendums leading to Irish reunification “almost impossible to accept”.
When the two parties are examined in the same analysis, almost exactly half of their combined voters share this view. On the bright side: half would accept the result. UUP voters are less fearful, though a quarter tick the “almost impossible to accept” option, as do one eighth of Alliance voters.
To identify which particular losers may potentially withhold consent to unification we examined their demographic traits. Among Protestants, those who find reunification almost impossible to accept are more likely to be men (37 per cent) than women (27 per cent) and are more likely to be working class (37 per cent) than middle class (26 per cent).
Combining gender and class, we find that almost half (47 per cent) of Protestant working class men would find reunification almost impossible to accept. Advocates of Irish unification will have to consider how to address their concerns.
When we examine DUP/TUV voters the same patterns are found at greater magnitude. Fifty-five per cent of DUP/TUV male voters compared to 40 per cent of female voters find Irish unity almost impossible to accept, as do 57 per cent of DUP/TUV working class voters, compared to 36 per cent of their middle-class voters. In combination, 71 per cent of male working-class DUP/TUV voters would find a pro-reunification result almost impossible to accept.
These findings suggest that opposition to Irish unification among Protestant unionists is widely prevalent and intense, if not universal. Advocates of unification face the challenge of constructing compelling arguments to address such hostility to unification, or elaborating particular versions or types of unity that may attract less hostility.