Talk of a United Ireland has been on the rise for some time. It has been ever-present topic of Irish current affairs since 1922, but it has been quite some time since it has been discussed at such length, so seriously, as it is being discussed right now. However, there are a multitude of variables and obstacles which will affect what is the biggest dream of some and the worst nightmare of others.
Firstly, polling can give a rough outline of where Northern Ireland stands on the issue. It should be noted that polling this subject is tough; Northern Ireland’s only reputable pollster is LucidTalk, and they are often at pains to point that out. There have been four polls on the question of a United Ireland in 2021. Of the three that include “don’t knows”, the average is as follows – 47% support remaining in the UK, 40% support a United Ireland, and 14% don’t know. So, a relatively comfortable margin in support of the union, albeit with many undecided voters.
However, if we rewind five years to 2016 and look at the two polls conducted that year the average was much different. 61% supported remaining in the UK, 25% supported and United Ireland, and 12% did not know. Whilst it is hard to say how accurate polls on the subject are, there is enough evidence to suggest support for the Union has dropped notably whilst support for a United Ireland has risen significantly.
Attitudes towards a United Ireland are significantly different amongst age groups. Sub-samples of polls can only tell you much so the following numbers should be taken with a pinch of salt. In the latest Kantar poll, support for a United Ireland was 50% amongst 18-24 year olds and 42% amongst 25-34 year olds. Amongst the 55-64 category it was just 28% and 26% in the 65+ category. Furthermore, 23% of 18-24 year olds support neither option compared to 14% of the 65+ age group. This suggests there are more younger people open to the possibility of a United Ireland even if they do not not currently support it. Whilst the numbers can only be looked at more generally, it is clear that there is significant divergence between generations.
This is backed up by the fact that Sinn Fein are actually most popular amongst young people. This is according to multiple LucidTalk polls as well as the 2020 General Election results in the Republic of Ireland. The younger generations have grown up in a largely peaceful Northern Ireland. They are not so acutely aware of the past violence. It is this violence that many older voters are afraid of triggering in the event of a border poll, scarred as many are by the memories of the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Additionally, younger voters are generally more pro-EU. This evidence would suggest that in the long term, support for a United Ireland will continue to grow.
Making the Case for the Union
It is no secret that Unionist political parties are going through some turbulence. The Democratic Unionist Party – or DUP – has descended into vicious infighting following a coup by the hardliners in the party which ousted First Minister Arlene Foster. Edwin Poots was installed as party leader in her absence. He has made no secret of his intention to take the party further right in order to stop the apparent flow of support to the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). A number of big names in the party appear to be extremely unhappy with these events. This seeming implosion is not a good look for Unionism as a whole. It is critical for Unionism that there is loud voice making the case for the Union. That has been the DUP for years but now there is a void which must be filled.
Additionally, the DUP have often operated by scaring people. They argue that if you don’t vote for them there will be a United Ireland. This tactic is not as effective as it once was. Many young people are not as attached to the Union as their forebears. If the Union is to survive there has to be someone making the positive case. Someone has to show people why staying will make their lives materially better.
The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) would like to be the purveyor of this brand of Unionism. Leader Steve Aiken recently resigned and was replaced with Doug Beattie. He is trying to rebrand the party as a modern, progressive Unionist party to counter the conservatism of the DUP. However, the party has been in decline for years. It has a public perception of being a weak cousin of the DUP headed up by middle-aged conservative men. Shifting this image will be difficult. The DUP take up a huge amount of oxygen in the press. This makes it very difficult for others to break through. No matter how good their policies are, the UUP must break through the DUP noise and start making the positive case for the Union.
Returning to Violence
Possibly the biggest hurdle to a United Ireland is the threat of a return of violence. The mere memory of the Troubles prevents many older voters from ever voting for a United Ireland. The recent riots, thought to be orchestrated by Loyalist paramilitaries, have given a wake up call to what could happen in the event of a border poll. There have already been more threats of violence over the summer due to Loyalist grievances over the Northern Ireland Protocol. The most effective way of preventing a United Ireland is probably for Loyalist paramilitaries to cause more havoc. By doing this they scare people away from voting to reunify.
The Conservative Party
The current Conservative government is extremely unpopular in Northern Ireland. PM Boris Johnson received -56 and -44 approval ratings in the last two polls. Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis received -69 and -65. The only NI politician with comparably bad ratings is Edwin Poots. Successive Northern Ireland Secretaries have fallen flat on their faces. The one successful holder of the role, Julian Smith (who played big role in getting Stormont back up and running in 2020), was sacked after just eight months.
The perception is that they do not understand or care about Northern Ireland’s problems. It took five days of rioting in April before Lewis actually turned up in Belfast and Johnson commented. This would not be the case if the riots were in Manchester or London. The tactless talk of building a bridge from Scotland to Northern Ireland has been rubbished by most. Given the state of the NHS, schools and infrastructure amongst other things, the idea of dumping billions into a Boris vanity project is quite frankly insulting. The longer this government stays in power, the more people that get driven away from the Union.
There is a common school of thought which argues that if Scotland votes for independence, Northern Ireland will follow. Their leaving would create a permission structure for people in Northern Ireland to vote for a United Ireland. If Scotland is able to hold a referendum, it will certainly give nationalists oxygen to call for a border poll of their own. If Scotland was to gain independence relatively smoothly and successfully, that could definitely encourage people to consider a United Ireland, especially if the current brand of Conservatism stays in power for the foreseeable future. Additionally SNP leader and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is very popular in Northern Ireland. She scored an approval rating of +26 in LucidTalk’s most recent poll, higher than any politician polled except UUP health minister Robin Swann.
The Southern Perspective
People often forget that it is not just Northern Ireland who would be voting in a border poll. Voters in the Republic of Ireland would also have to vote in favour in a poll of their own. It is fair to say that the vast majority of those from south of the border would support a United Ireland in principle. The most recent poll saw a the pro-United Ireland camp at 51%, the rejection camp at 27% and undecideds at 22%. Excluding the undecideds that leaves the result at 66%-34%.
However, the reality of Uniting Ireland for the Republic is that they would be taking on a huge financial burden, not to mention all the sectarian issues and possible spike in violence. The Republic of Ireland has undergone a radical transformation since the mid 20th century. It is not long since it was a very poor country, riddled with poverty. More recently the recession 10-15 years ago caused huge problems and huge debt. They have only recently managed to move past that. The fact is that many people in the Republic may feel that it is too much of a risk to unify even if in their hearts they would like 32 county Ireland.
Sinn Fein’s Rise
Sinn Fein had a huge breakthrough in the 2020 Irish General Election. They won the popular vote with 24.5% (10.7% rise on 2016). They are currently sitting at 29% in the Politico polling average and in with a good shot of being the largest party and forming a left-wing coalition next time around. With a Sinn Fein Taoiseach installed, there is no doubt that they would push for a border poll, especially if they also become the largest party in the NI Assembly in 2022 as they currently seem set to do.
After a turbulent 2020, the Northern section have smartly kept their heads down whilst the DUP take all the negative headlines. They have been able to paint themselves as relatively competent (by Northern Irish standards anyway). If they can continue to keep their noses clean for the next few months, they should be able to maintain most (if not all) of their seats while no Unionist party dominates. They will be hoping to capitalise on the continued prevarication of Unionists over the implementation of the Irish Language Act and eat into the SDLP who, despite a strong 2019 General Election and an impressive slate of elected representatives, do not appear to have momentum.
There are a lot of moving parts when assessing the likelihood of United Ireland. Most agree that a border poll in the next five years would be almost impossible and extremely impractical. However, within the next 10 years is more plausible. A successful independent Scotland and a Sinn Fein-led government in the South would certainly amplify calls for a vote. This would also give more time to work out what a United Ireland would look like in practical terms (the continuation of Stormont, whether free healthcare would continue, the cost to the Republic, what the flag would like, etc.). However the stumbling block of violence will continue to make a border poll difficult.
As to whether a border poll would actually result in a United Ireland, it is impossible to tell. It is hard to emphasis enough how much the threat of violence dampens people’s appetite for a vote. If an independent Scotland was to fail, that would not help either. Furthermore, if one Unionist party can pull themselves together a present a modern, positive case for the Union then it will be a lot more difficult for Sinn Fein to make the case that there is evidence to suggest the majority of NI people want a United Ireland (The Good Friday Agreement stipulates that there has to be evidence of a majority for a border poll to be held). Despite the recent hype, a United Ireland remains fiendishly difficult to achieve. It is possible but tough, at least for the next 10 years.