A SURVEY of Northern Ireland voters has found significant support among nationalists for maintaining the Union.
The YouGov poll has revealed that almost a third of SDLP supporters (28 per cent) would be happy to remain in the UK. And only a minority of their voters (44 per cent) wanted a united Ireland.
Perhaps more surprisingly, still, 16 per cent of those surveyed who were Sinn Fein voters said they too would opt for the Province remaining in the UK.
In all, across the supporters of the five main political parties here, 55 per cent wanted to remain in the UK; 24 per cent supported a united Ireland; the rest either back independence or had no definite opinion.
The poll was commissioned by the Ulster Unionists and Conservative Party as part of joint research to inform their merger talks
UUP leader Sir Reg Empey said: “While all polling must be treated with caution, I thought the figures were very stark and should be a great source of encouragement to unionists because they suggest that if unionism conducts itself in the right way, it could appeal to a much broader base.
“It was not a total surprise to us that there is a significant pro-Union support amongst what is ostensibly a ‘nationalist’ electorate when you refer to the party they feel comfortable with voting for, for other reasons.”
Conservative shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson said: “I think more and more people, post the Belfast Agreement, St Andrews, the Referendum, are interested in issues and especially national issues across the UK.
“The poll confirms there is a demand for what we are currently talking about with the Ulster Unionists, which is national politics, and that people do look more to mainland Britain than perhaps to southern Ireland.”
Coincidentally, DUP MLA Nelson McCausland has said “the nationalist community no longer believes in the inevitability of a united Ireland”.
Mr McCausland based his assertion on the findings of a straw poll conducted at the West Belfast Talks Back event held as part of the West Belfast Festival.
“A clear majority did not believe it would happen,” he claimed.
The YouGov polling was done in May of this year. It sampled 876 people.
Respondents (61 per cent) predominantly classed themselves as British.
But 31 per cent of those who replied said they were Irish.
There was a slight leaning towards replies coming from the east of the Province, where there would be more YouGov members.
But YouGov said the survey was “weighted and representative”.
The UUP and Conservatives, while treating all polling with a degree of caution, believe the figures reveal that there is a major body of middle-class Roman Catholics who are pro-Union but who have yet to be provided with a voting option at the polls.
That option would be a party they see as completely non-sectarian, while being unionist in its core values.
One reason for the UUP-Tory talks is the parties share the view that there is large section of the community who feel they are not catered for by local politics.
“The poll seems to say there’s a support out there for the Union that has not been exploited,” said Sir Reg.
“In the past, Gerry Adams set up a Sinn Fein group to reach out to unionists, in the theory that if it could even sway 10 per cent away from the Union. It is clear we should have a counter strategy and the figures show there is a potential for that.”
Sir Reg called the poll a counter to the nationalist belief that a united Ireland was on the way.
But, he noted, unionism had to appeal to those who voted SDLP but were not Irish nationalist in outlook.
The appeal of remaining in the UK was obvious, the UUP leader added. Size and standing, wealth, international influence, a culture of liberty and equality.
Mr McCausland said: “If a question surrounding the inevitability of a united Ireland had been asked at the West Belfast Festival in 1998 or during the Trimble era, I have no doubt whatsoever that the vast majority of those being polled would have voted yes.
“The fact that in a republican heartland like the Falls Road a clear majority of those polled said they did not believe in the inevitability of a United Ireland should provide encouragement to the unionist community.”