Northern Ireland’s ‘persuadables’: A pivotal demographic for future referendums

Discussion groups reveal both openness to and caution about the prospect of a united Ireland

Advocates of Irish unity would have to convince the undecided in the North that reunification within the EU would bring economic benefits and security, and also address British Protestants' identity issues. Photograph: William Barton

In our focus groups we homed in on the “persuadables”: people who are likely to vote in a referendum on Irish unity but do not have a firm view on the subject. They are either undecided or have an opinion that is open to change. Such people may be pivotal in any future referendums.

The participants in our four focus groups – two each in the North and South – were asked to consider the advantages and disadvantages of each referendum option: Northern Ireland staying in the UK or reunifying with the rest of Ireland.

NI Poll top image
There was a shared sense, north and south, that an immediate referendum would be a bad idea. Graphic: The Irish Times

The economic merits of staying in the UK, and the financial burden of unity, were emphasised by participants both North and South. One northerner argued that the status quo involved less economic uncertainty: “I’m happy enough to stay [in the UK]…you know where you are economically…you know what’s coming in…I suppose it’s fear of the unknown.” To which another participant responded: “Better the devil you know sometimes than the devil you don’t.” Many participants North and South questioned whether the South could afford the North (and particularly the cost of healthcare). One southerner was pessimistic: “Maybe I’m just a Debbie Downer but I just can’t see this working without us going bankrupt in the Republic.”

Economic benefits

However, possible economic benefits of unity were also highlighted. One southerner felt that it would be “brilliant” for tourism, and one northerner suggested that “economically it would be a lot stronger as one Ireland… trade across would be a lot stronger for companies… the whole infrastructure, everything”. The possible economic benefits of being in the EU as a result of unification were raised by a northern participant – “I don’t know that Brexit is working for us, and I think, would it better if we were back in the EU again?” – and one southerner emphasised the benefit for the whole island of having a single currency.


The complexities of considering the economic trade-offs were highlighted by one northern participant who reflected on the possible benefit of higher salaries in a united Ireland in the context of comparing healthcare systems and costs: “They’ve got a better pay scale system, their basic wage is going up… Negatives would be you’d have to pay for everything… but at the minute up here if you want to go to the hospital or get some sort of work done you have to go private anyway.”

Potential problems relating to identity and conflict were raised both North and South. One Protestant northerner said that “at the moment I prefer to have my identity with the rest of the UK, and that’s the way I’d like to keep it… even if there was a slight economic advantage in joining the Republic, that wouldn’t sway me, really… you’d feel your British identity would be diminished.” He further lamented that “Britain doesn’t want us… and the Republic can’t afford us, so we’re in a bit of limbo…” Another northern participant emphasised that an advantage of the status quo is that unionists, particularly those “at the stauncher end”, are “pacified”. In contrast, a further participant stated that a united Ireland would cause “conflict… a lot of bother, a lot of problems, going back to old bad history”, and another emphasised that “the paramilitaries are still here”.

‘More Troubles’

Southerners displayed anxiety about “civil unrest”, and one predicted that “it’d probably be more Troubles… it could end up going back to where it was”. According to another southern participant “there’s a lot of undesirables up there [in the North]” who will “only be happy once they stay in the UK”. Another participant added: “Yeah… I don’t think we could ever please them or ever cope with them here.”

There was a shared sense, North and South, that an immediate referendum would be a bad idea. Northern Ireland was perceived to be in a difficult position at the moment, with the “shambles” and “turmoil” of post-Brexit UK politics and the “dysfunctional” northern executive. Participants also agreed that a lot of preparation is needed before any referendum to address properly the range of complex issues. There was a feeling among many, North and South, that the referendum question may be one for “the next generation”. Also, a strongly held shared view was that it was only sensible or acceptable to hold a referendum if there was a lot of good-quality information for voters beforehand, in order to “avoid the Brexit disaster”.

The implication is that to persuade the persuadable, advocates of Irish unity must convince them that reunification within the EU would bring economic benefits. They must also address the identity concerns of British Protestants and focus on the security concerns of all.