Two polls published this week on both sides of the border reveal some surprising attitudes to the prospect of a united Ireland or the breakup of the UK within the next few years. Both polls were held in the run-up to the 100th anniversary of the creation of Northern Ireland on May 3.
A majority of people in the Republic do not believe there will be a united Ireland within the next 10 years, according to a Red C poll. However, a majority of people on both sides of the border believe Northern Ireland will have left the UK within 25 years, either as a separate state or as part of a united Ireland. A poll commissioned by BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight programme reveals that only 40% of people in the North see the anniversary of its formation in 1921 as a cause for celebration. It also found that 49% of the North’s residents favour remaining a part of the UK, while 43% supported leaving. In the Republic, 51% favoured a united Ireland, with 27% backing the status quo.
The Red C poll found that 43% of those surveyed believed there would not be a united Ireland within 10 years, while 32% agreed there would be, and 25% did not know.
Politicians of all shades on both sides of the border should note these results. Sinn Féin, in particular, would do well to reflect on whether a majority of people in the Republic want unity in the near future. While there may be nostalgic support for unity, what would it look like in practice? Would the capital necessarily be in Dublin? How would unionists be accommodated? How would our healthcare system work? How would the North be funded until it becomes a viable economy? These chastening thoughts may well cause nationalists in the Republic to pause in their support for unification.
Sinn Féin has made a number of attempts in recent years to garner support for an early referendum on unification to the point where it has become a form of coercion. They have attracted some strange bedfellows. Earlier this year, George Osborne, a former chancellor of the exchequer of the UK, came out in favour of a poll, followed by Max Hastings, a former editor of The Daily Telegraph, the bible of the Tory party. Writing for Bloomberg, Hastings said Irish unity “would serve the best interests of Irish people, save a rump of alienated Protestants, historically out of their time”.
In the North itself, the DUP should note that changing demographics are also changing the political landscape there, and making unification more likely in the medium term. They must also be aware, as Osborne put it in a London Evening Standard article, that “its prosperity now depends on its relationship with Dublin and Brussels, not London. The politics will follow”. He added that most people in Britain will not care. Ironically, southerners may exhibit more empathy with unionists than Britons do.
At the same time, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have already seen support fall during the pandemic. The prospect is that they would fare even worse in a united Ireland, with the current likelihood that Sinn Féin would become the dominant political party. Attitudes are changing on both sides of the border. Politicians of all shades would do well to take note of that.