In all our focus groups, North and South, concerns were raised about the potential unhappiness of northern unionists if referendums were held and resulted in a united Ireland.
These groups comprised people likely to vote in a referendum on Irish unification but who do not have a firm view on how they would vote. They are undecided or have an opinion, but are open to persuasion by argument. So, what the focus group discussions can suggest to us are the likely concerns of potentially pivotal voters in future referendums.
One Catholic female in the North emphasised that “the unionist population would be afraid of their identity being lost completely” in a united Ireland. This point was echoed, with empathy, by a young female southerner: “... the loss of their identity would be an issue … if somebody came along to me and said, ‘look you are going to be British from now on’, I don’t think I’d take it too well.”
Fear of identity loss could lead some unionists to find it difficult to accept a pro-unity referendum result. According to one northern participant, from a Protestant background: ‘if we ever went to a united Ireland … for some people they would feel as though something has been taken from them without their consent.’
Others feared that unification, against the wishes of many people in the North who identify as British, could cause instability and conflict. As one southerner said: “… if the people in Northern Ireland don’t want to be part of us … I do think it would lead to civil unrest within Northern Ireland if we were to force it”.
Worries were expressed that violent agents could exploit the scene. One concerned northerner suggested: “I think there could be backlashes … if things don’t go certain people’s way, I think I would be concerned that violence would raise its ugly head again.” One southern participant was fearful that opposition to Irish unity would simply mean that “war” would “break out again”.
One of our northern participants was equally concerned, maintaining that the peace process could be at risk if unification occurred: “If we were to become a united Ireland, I just see conflict … I think we have achieved peace, the peace process, there’s no fighting anymore, there’s no deaths because of religion — the big, big part for me is would that come back in because I could see Protestants not agreeing to it, they don’t want it to happen and that’s the reality.” To which another person responded: “… they’re not going to win over those people and I agree that conflict could, in my opinion, be inevitable.”
One participant suggested, however, that the likelihood of post-referendum violence would be reduced if all groups could agree before the votes to accept the results, whatever they would be: “If you can get some form of consensus, that these groups signed up to an agreement that they would respect the outcome of the decision, and that is that, then I think that could be a [positive] step.”
If loyalist paramilitary violence against a united Ireland emerged, after unification, it would be the responsibility of the Irish State to address it, not the UK. This vista was not welcomed by several participants in the southern discussions. One of them put it this way: “… you are guaranteeing civil unrest … they do have and still have paramilitary capabilities and then we would have to deal with that, the same way as they did for 30 years over from London … They would be regarding themselves as second class citizens … they are battle-hardened, you know, would we be able to deal with that here, I don’t think so?”
If referendum commitments were made to people in the North and then were not implemented after Irish reunification, it was recognised that could also cause problems. One southern participant emphasised that “very big promises” would have to be made “to encourage the six counties to join us” and expressed concern about “how the people of Northern Ireland would feel towards us”. There could be “resentment” if promises are not delivered.
These conversations highlight challenges for advocates of Irish unification. There must be procedural clarity, and credible and transparent promises during the referendums, and clarity on the subsequent implementation of pledges.
To win over the “persuadables” or “undecideds”, as represented in our focus groups, advocates of unification must address their fears of violence occurring if a united Ireland is supported in referendums.
They must also convince the two publics that the fatalistic lament of one of our northern participants is misplaced: “Nobody can win. The likes of us, normal people, we’re stuck in the middle … it’ll really come down to who kills who to get what they want, it’s a sad thing, it’s sad but it’s probably true … those people are still in the background.”