Brexit: Understanding why people voted as they did in the choice of a lifetime

Support for Brexit broke down starkly on religious lines
Support for Brexit broke down starkly on religious lines

The result of the Brexit referendum in Northern Ireland came as no surprise to those who had been keeping an eye on opinion polls.

Since autumn 2015, big majorities, sometimes exceeding two to one, expressed support for continuing membership of the EU.

The result of the referendum followed a fascinating pattern. Although survey results had shown Catholics to be much more likely to be “remain” supporters than Protestants, in some border constituencies (such as Newry and Armagh, and South Down), the “remain” vote surprisingly fell below the total nationalist vote in the 2015 Westminster election. On the other hand, certain solidly unionist constituencies, such as North Down and East Londonderry, returned “remain” majorities.

We have a good idea as to who the Brexit supporters were in Great Britain. Age and class mattered. A large YouGov eve-of-poll survey showed 63% of those aged 65 or more supporting Brexit, but only 20% of those aged 16-24; and it was supported by 61% of working-class respondents but only 41% of the middle-class group. Brexit support was also stronger among men, and among those living in regions outside London.

We may now ask similar questions about Northern Ireland, in the light of a major survey supported by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council conducted in the weeks immediately before and after the referendum and with a sample of over 4,000. Some “shy Brexiteers” may have been present in the sample, since the proportion reporting that they had voted “remain”, or that they would so vote, was slightly larger than in the referendum.

As in Britain, there was a contrast between older (65 and over) and younger (under 25) respondents, but the difference was rather less: Brexit supporters made up 45% of the older group, and 28% of the younger. As regards social class, the Brexit position was supported by 46% of the working class, but only 33% of the middle class – again, trending in the same direction as in Britain, but with a less stark contrast.

In Northern Ireland, though, the referendum raised further challenging questions: the risk of further economic isolation, the prospect of a “hard” border with the Republic, the possible unravelling of the Good Friday Agreement, and fears of a return to civil unrest. The survey gives us an insight into the kinds of people who felt that withdrawal from the EU was a greater good that trumped these dangers.

The most obvious difference is that between the two communities. A striking 60% of Protestants, but only 15% of Catholics supported the “leave” side. On the Protestant side, there is a notable further difference: working-class Protestants emerge as much stronger supporters of “leave” (71%) than middle-class Protestants (47%).

When we look at the parties on either side, the contrast is even stronger. There were few Brexit supporters among those who voted for either of the two main nationalist parties, and the parties of the centre, the Alliance Party and the Greens, were also overwhelmingly “remain” supporters. But on the unionist side there were big divisions, with TUV voters strongly pro-Brexit (89%), followed by the DUP (70%), but with Brexit supporters a majority even among Ulster Unionists voters (54%).

What does all of this mean? The survey data shows Catholics solidly (but not unanimously) behind continued EU membership, with Protestants divided, but tending strongly towards support for Brexit. This is an ironic outcome, since the UK’s vote to leave the EU has reopened an issue, perceived as menacing by many Protestants, that had been substantially buried since the Belfast Agreement of 1998 – that of the Irish border.

The dilemma for Northern Ireland voters is that, while Brexit carries the same general economic dangers here as it does in Great Britain, any political pay-off that might be welcome to, say, English Brexit supporters is counterbalanced by big economic and political risks unique to Northern Ireland.

The challenge of economic survival is formidable for a region that had taken for granted access both to the trade and other benefits of its relationship with the Republic, and to subsidies from London and Brussels. This is matched by potential political disruption as Belfast renegotiates its relationship not just with Brussels, but also with London and Dublin.

l John Coakley and John Garry are professors in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast and are directors of the ESRC funded survey described in this article.