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Why a united Ireland post Brexit is a real possibility

September 10th, 2018

Tory indifference towards the Union and opposition to Brexit in Northern Ireland makes a united Ireland a real possibility writes Keiran Pedley

I cannot have been the only person that was astonished at Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley’s recent admission that she knew nothing of the place before taking office. I am probably being naïve, but you would have thought that someone appointed to such an important role would at least possess a passing knowledge of its history and the political skill required for such a position. Some have commended Bradley’s honesty. Yet her appointment reflects an arrogance about Ireland that seems to permeate the Conservative Party in 2018. Aptly displayed by Boris Johnson’s constant bemoaning of the importance of the Irish border question in Brexit negotiations.

Perhaps it is not arrogance but indifference. Indeed, we see such indifference among the British public in general. On the question of Northern Ireland’s constitutional future, polling by Lord Ashcroft in June showed that voters accept the future of Northern Ireland is for the people there to decide and they do not mind which path they choose. This is hardly controversial. Perhaps more striking, however, is that when forced to choose themselves, 63% of Brits felt Brexit was more important than keeping the union together – a figure rising to 73% among Conservative voters. It would appear that when considering Britain’s post Brexit future, Northern Ireland barely features in the minds of many (English) voters.

Brexit and the Irish unity question

Such indifference comes at a sensitive time. Polling published by Deltapoll last week suggests that Brexit has the potential to shift views in Northern Ireland on the question of Irish unity. When presented with two scenarios, one where Britain remains in the EU and one where Britain leaves, public opinion in Northern Ireland shifts sharply in favour of a united Ireland once Britain leaves the EU. Those traditionally neutral on the constitutional question, primarily non-voters and Alliance voters, move from supporting the Union to supporting Irish reunification. Meanwhile, support for a united Ireland in the nationalist community significantly hardens post Brexit and it even grows among some unionists too.

Table 1: Attitudes to Irish unity in Northern Ireland

Source: Deltapoll. Deltapoll interviewed an online sample of 1,199 adults aged 18+ between 24-28th August 2018. Full tables here. Data in parenthesis unweighted n sizes. Data weighted to represent population of Northern Ireland by age, gender, social class, region and recalled 2017 / 2016 vote. Figures may not add to 100% due to rounding.

As we digest these numbers, a word of caution. For reasons outlined in this week’s Polling Matters podcast, care is needed interpreting these figures. Sampling a representative population in Northern Ireland is difficult. This poll significantly weights raw data that skews male and Remain and undersamples younger people and non-voters (as online polls often do). The sample surveyed is likely to be very politically engaged, which has created problems for polling in the past and raises questions about the scale of the Brexit related shift in the headline figures.

More importantly, it is fair to say that Brexit would not be the only consideration for voters in the event of a real border poll. The future of the peace process and what a united Ireland would look like in practice would play a significant role too (as would other factors). So although this poll clearly shows that Brexit shifts opinion on a united Ireland in Northern Ireland, the scale of that shift and how a border poll plays out in practice is unclear.

Nevertheless, such unpredictability offers little comfort to unionists. The data cited above is not in isolation. Research by Lucid Talk for the BBC earlier this year showed a similar trend, with more than one in four in Northern Ireland claiming that they would at least consider abandoning support for the Union in favour of a united Ireland post Brexit. 

Therefore, whilst we cannot say for certain that Brexit will lead to a united Ireland, we can at the very least say that Brexit has the potential to shift opinion on the subject in a way that is virtually unimaginable under any other circumstances. This is before we introduce the potential of a ‘hard border’ with the Republic, which increases support for a united Ireland further still in Deltapoll’s data to some 56%.

Time to take a united Ireland seriously

This all makes you wonder how seriously unionism in Northern Ireland takes its current situation and the prospect of a united Ireland. The answer to that question ought to be ‘very’ and in fairness most probably is. In many respects, the DUP’s support for Brexit seems odd considering the Conservative Party’s apparent luke-warm commitment to Northern Ireland, alongside the fact that Northern Ireland voted Remain and appears somewhat warm to the idea of a united Ireland in the EU post Brexit. Of course, the DUP does not have to take its current situation lying down. One wonders, as Brexit negotiations reach a crucial phase this autumn, if the DUP is about to start flexing its political muscles as it continues to prop up May’s increasingly fragile government. 

In any case, it is time to take the prospect of a border poll and a united Ireland seriously. It may not happen overnight, but it is a realistic prospect in the medium term in a world where the Tories increasingly prioritise Brexit over the Union and Jeremy Corbyn edges closer to Number 10. Serious thought must now be given to what this all looks like in practice in the context of a fragile peace process and no functioning Assembly in Stormont. Talk of Labour splits and a Johnson challenge to May have made Northern Ireland something of an afterthought in Westminster circles this summer. One way or another I suspect all that is about to change. The Tory direction of travel on Brexit appears to be moving away from the most accommodating for Northern Ireland’s position in the UK – and that may spell trouble ahead.

Keiran Pedley

Keiran Pedley presents the weekly PB / Polling Matters podcast (link here) and tweets about polling and politics at @keiranpedley. You can listen to the most recent episode below.