Support for protocol varies between North and South

Northern Ireland poll: EU membership an attraction for many voters in Northern Ireland

NI poll image week two

The Northern Ireland protocol is viewed very favourably by the public in the Republic. Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) are supportive and only 4 per cent are opposed (see graphic 1). In the North, there is an even divide among those who express a clear view: 21 per cent support and 24 per cent oppose the protocol. Of those expressing a view, Catholics are three times more supportive than Protestants, and Protestants are slightly more than three times more opposed than Catholics.

Respondents who say that they “don’t know” are twice as prevalent in the North (31 per cent) as in the South (15 per cent). The same pattern is evident in our question assessing the economic impact of the protocol, where 36 per cent in the North “don’t know” compared to 22 per cent in the South.

Three-fifths of southerners agreed that the impact of the protocol on the Northern Ireland economy was “good” because “it gives Northern Ireland access to both the UK market and the EU market”, and under one-fifth agreed that it was “bad” because “it is now more difficult to import from Great Britain into Northern Ireland” (see graphic 2).

Again, opinion was more evenly divided in the North, with the “good” and “bad” options attracting approximately equal proportions of respondents. Catholics were much more likely than Protestants to regard the protocol as economically beneficial – half of Catholics chose “good” and just less than one fifth chose “bad” – while the reverse was true for Protestants, with one half indicating “bad” and one seventh “good”.


North and South also differ on the appropriate political strategy to adopt (see graphic 3). Almost three-quarters of respondents in the South adopt moderate pro-protocol views, either favouring implementation as originally agreed, or changes jointly agreed by the EU and UK. Only 8 per cent favour hardline anti-protocol action involving either scrapping it, or the UK unilaterally changing it. This pattern is similar in the North, with half favouring a moderate pro-protocol position and less than a quarter advocating scrapping or unilateral action. Adopting such a hardline response is advocated by just over one third of Protestants, while two-fifths adopt a more moderate position. Again, it bears emphasis that “don’t know” responses are more prevalent in the North than across the Border.

The upshot is that the Republic is very favourably disposed to the protocol, its economic benefits, and its implementation – as originally agreed or jointly amended.

Poll Monday

In the North, views are quite evenly balanced on our general question, and our question on economic effects. On political strategy, however, there are twice as many moderates as hardliners in the North, though among Protestants the balance is more even. The relatively large number of “don’t know” responses indicates that, despite the controversial nature of these issues, significant numbers of respondents may be flexible and persuadable. Therein lies hope for the EU-UK negotiators.

Attributing Blame

We asked our survey respondents, North and South, whom they blamed the most for the difficulties over the protocol – inviting them to identify from a list of eight political actors the two most deserving of blame.

The most frequently blamed was the British Government – in the Republic (63 per cent), the North (46 per cent), and among northern Catholics (56 per cent) and Protestants (40 per cent).

The DUP was the actor next most blamed by the South (52 per cent), the North (34 per cent), and northern Catholics (53 per cent). Among northern Protestants, the DUP was identified by 19 per cent, attracting less blame than the EU (28 per cent).

The EU was held culpable by less than one in 10 southerners and northern Catholics, and 17 per cent of northerners overall.

Loyalist paramilitaries were assigned blame by 11 per cent of southerners, but very few northerners, either Catholic or Protestant.

The same proportion (11 per cent) of northern Protestants blamed the Irish Government.

Sinn Féin was blamed by less than 10 per cent of any group and close to zero blame was assigned to either the Alliance Party or republican paramilitaries.

Overall, a consensus exists that the British Government is to blame; the DUP attracts significant blame, particularly from the South and northern Catholics; and the EU attracts some blame from northern Protestants.

The European question – link it to the Commonwealth?

One radical response to the difficulties of the protocol would be for Northern Ireland to rejoin the EU in the context of Irish reunification.

In response to a general question on EU membership, an overwhelming majority (91 per cent) in the South favour the Republic staying in the EU, with only one in 20 opposed.

In the North, over half (54 per cent) favour rejoining the EU, and just over one-quarter (27 per cent) want to stay out. Three-quarters of Catholics favour rejoining while one in 10 want to stay out. There is a fairly even divide among Protestants: 36 per cent wish to rejoin and 43 per cent wish to stay out (and one-fifth of them don’t know).

When we link this issue directly to the question of unification we find that the prospect of Northern Ireland joining the EU in the context of uniting with the rest of Ireland makes people in the South more likely to support Irish unity (68 per cent) and makes extremely few (4 per cent) less likely.

In Northern Ireland rejoining the EU would make no difference for half of respondents (just over a quarter of Catholics and two-thirds of Protestants). But the effect is strongly pro-unity for Catholics, while for those Protestants for whom it would make a difference 15 per cent are more likely and 10 per cent less likely to support unity.

Creative linkage?

These findings have implications for political strategists. Advocates of Irish unification could agree with many Protestants that the British Government is to blame for the instability caused by the protocol. They already suggest Irish unification to obviate the difficulties of the protocol by bringing the North fully into the EU and its single market and customs union. However, that move is anathema to many unionists.

Unification advocates could reduce this problem by complementing their advocacy of EU membership with persuading the southern public to support membership of another international organisation that is valued by unionists: namely, the Commonwealth, as discussed in one of our previous articles in this series (December 5th). Such a change of heart by the South might help win the hearts of some in the North.

John Garry is professor of political behaviour at Queen’s University Belfast. Brendan O’Leary is Lauder professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania