Who benefits from a united Ireland? Expectations are mixed

Advocates must convince Northern voters of economic benefits and future growth prospects

NI poll image week two

Would both the North and South benefit from Irish unification (a “positive win-win”) or would both lose out (“mutual damage”)?

Or would any benefits or costs that occur be uneven, with either the North or South accruing the greater advantages or losses?

We asked the public on both sides of the Border.

Southerners are more likely than northerners to think the possible tide toward unification would lift both boats. Just over two-fifths of our survey respondents in the Republic think that both North and South would benefit equally, considerably more than the 27 per cent in the North who share this view.


There is an interesting tendency for those in the North and South to suspect that the other jurisdiction would do particularly well out of unity.

In the South, three times more people think that the North would benefit more than the South. Conversely, just over twice as many people in Northern Ireland think that the South would benefit more than the North.

One-sixth of respondents in each jurisdiction are entirely pessimistic, predicting the mutual ruin of the two places.

Assessments vary across religious background.

Northern Catholics are very similar to southern respondents regarding the proportion who believe that both parts of the island would equally benefit from unity.

But just 12 per cent of northern Protestants share this view. Instead, they either believe the North and South would lose out equally, or that the South would benefit more than the North.

One challenge for advocates of Irish unification, therefore, is to address these northern Protestant perceptions.

They should respectfully address those who think there are benefits to be derived but who fear that these will largely accrue to the South.

They will need to argue that these benefits would be more evenly distributed, and that, for example, the Republic’s successful attraction of American and other foreign and direct investment within the European Union will benefit the North – especially, but not only, the Belfast-Dublin corridor.

Poll Tuesday

They must also address those Protestants who think there will be no benefits for either side.

To do so, they must build a distinct and compelling counterargument about all-island comparative economic advantages, and future growth prospects, compared with staying in the EU with Great Britain.

There are twice as many “don’t knows” in the North as in the South, perhaps suggesting that evaluations are flexible in the North.

We suspect it may also reflect northern lack of knowledge of, or uncertainty over, southern economic performance in the past three decades.

When we examine assessments broken down by party support, TUV and DUP voters are particularly likely (two-fifths) to think the benefits from unification will accrue to the “other” side.

But they are partly matched by a large proportion of Fine Gael voters (one-third) who see the North as likely to be benefiting more than the South.

Our question asked about “benefits” without defining these solely as material or economic.

Many voters in both jurisdictions will be very influenced by economic assessments, as demonstrated in a previous article in this series, and open to persuasion, preferably evidence-based persuasion.

But not all assessments of benefits and costs are material or economic. And so, the challenge for advocates of Irish unity is to persuade the don’t knows, the undecided, and the wobblies – who go back and forth on the question – that life in general will be better under unification, and evenly so across North and South.

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

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