First major post-Brexit survey shows no surge in support for Irish unity

The survey is conducted every year by academics
The survey is conducted every year by academics

The first major post-Brexit survey in Northern Ireland has found that the UK vote to quit the EU has not led to a surge in support for a united Ireland.

In the wake of last June’s referendum result there was speculation that many Northern Irish Catholics who had become comfortable with the status quo could suddenly have shifted their constitutional preference.

But the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey – the most comprehensive such survey which has been undertaken in Northern Ireland since 1998 – shows just a modest increase in support for a united Ireland, which it puts at 19%.

Both Sinn Fein and the SDLP have talked of unionist voters now potentially shifting to support Northern Ireland leaving the Union if that was to mean re-joining the EU.

Less than a year ago, when asked about Irish unity, a confident Gerry Adams told Vice News: “The conditions change, people’s attitudes change. They see different possibilities.

“Don’t underestimate that many, many unionists are on a little voyage of discovery.”

At Sinn Fein’s manifesto launch last month, the party’s Northern Ireland leader, Michelle O’Neill, said she was “confident that as the consequences of Brexit become clearer more and more people from a unionist background will be open to the idea of exploring new relationships on this island”.

The survey, run by academics at Ulster University and Queen’s University, contains some glimmers of hope for republicans, who since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 have seen support for a united Ireland slump to record lows.

The survey, based on 1,208 face-to-face interviews between September and December last year, shows that when asked what the long-term policy for Northern Ireland should be, support for ending partition has risen from 14% to 19% between 2015 and 2016, with support up in virtually every category of person surveyed (except among 35 to 44-year-olds, where support has fallen).

Even among Protestants – the most hostile to such a change – support for a united Ireland has risen from 1% to 4%.

And support for removing the border has increased most among the young, with an increase of 10 percentage points among the 18 to 24-year-olds (to now stand at 26% in favour of unity).

However, the academic survey shows nothing like the sort of surge which would require the Secretary of State to call a referendum on Irish unity (the test is that he believes that it could be won), let alone provide any serious prospect of winning such a plebiscite if it was to be held.

Support for the Union (either with direct rule or a devolved Executive) is slightly down from 70% to 66%,

And, although Brexit has generally been seen as a threat to the Union in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, the survey shows that 7% of people say that it has made them less inclined towards a united Ireland (16% say it has made them more in favour).

The vast majority of people said that it had made no difference.

The survey also finds a fall in those describing themselves as unionist to a record low of 29% (down from 33% last year). The percentage describing as nationalist has also fallen, by 1 percentage point to 24%, while those who describe as ‘neither’ are now far greater than either of the other two categories, at 46%.

However, the survey was conducted at the end of last year, just prior to the collapse of devolution and two polarising elections which have seem tribal politics come to the fore and seen both the DUP and Sinn Fein consolidate their positions as the lead parties of unionism and nationalism respectively.

The survey, which is funded via Stormont, academic grants and philanthropic funds, suggests far lower support for a united Ireland than support for nationalist parties.

Four years ago a major poll for the BBC found that lots of voters for nationalist parties would not necessarily vote for Irish unity in a border poll.

The Ipsos MORI poll found that almost a quarter of Sinn Fein supporters (23%) told the pollsters they would vote against a united Ireland in a border poll. And more than half of SDLP supporters (56%) said they would opt to stay in the UK if a poll was held tomorrow.