Brexit: Irish youth see unity via the backstop, new polling shows

A poll of southern attitudes to Theresa May's proposed Brexit deal shows a widespread belief that if the Northern Irish backstop is ever implemented it would increase the chances of a united Ireland.
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The poll, which was commissioned by the People’s Vote campaign arguing for a second referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, was conducted in mid-December and shown to the News Letter yesterday.

The research shows a particularly strong belief among young people that the backstop would fuel support for removing the border, with 67% of under 35s stating that the backstop would make Irish unity more likely.

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The People’s Vote campaign said that they had not asked any other questions as part of the poll, so it is not possible to compare how southern voters view the backstop in comparison to alternatives such as leaving the EU without a deal or not leaving the EU at all.

The poll was conducted south of the border in DecemberThe poll was conducted south of the border in December
The poll was conducted south of the border in December

The backstop – to be triggered if no other solution can be agreed to prevent a hard border – would involve Northern Ireland remaining aligned with some EU rules even if the rest of the UK diverges.

Respondents were asked: “Do you think the Backstop section of the Brexit deal will make the eventual prospect of a United Ireland”, followed by a list of options from “a lot more likely” to “a lot less likely”.

Just 9% thought it made Irish unity less likely, while 40% said that it would be more likely and 38% said that it would make no difference.

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However, there was a huge disparity across the generations. Among the middle-aged, just 30% thought the backstop makes unity more likely – but among under 35s, that figure more that doubled.

The belief that the backstop would make unity more likely was also higher in border areas and other traditionally more republican areas such as Cork and Kerry.

The polling, conducted in the run-up to Christmas, saw 1,546 adults being interviewed by pollsters Ireland Thinks. Eighty per cent of the interviews were by phone, with the rest conducted online.

When asked who funded the research, the People’s Vote campaign said that most of its money came from public donations but that it has some large unnamed donors.

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Former secretary of state Lord Hain appealed to the DUP to not only reject Theresa May’s proposed deal, but also reject a no-deal Brexit and instead support a second referendum.

The Labour peer, who backs a second referendum, said: “The DUP’s decision to back Brexit may yet come to embarrass them because there is no prospect of any sort of deal with the European Union that does not involve a backstop – and Irish voters see this as a step towards a united Ireland.

“The DUP must also know that a ‘no deal’ would be a catastrophe for Northern Ireland, especially for farming communities in the border regions. The one thing the DUP is known for is having tactical ‘nous’ and the logic for them – as it must be for MPs of all parties in the House of Commons – is to back the idea of the public being given the final say in a new vote where people will be given an option of staying in the EU with the deal we’ve already got.”

But the DUP’s Westminster leader, Nigel Dodds, said that the 2016 vote had been UK-wide and “the result must be respected and implemented”.

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He said: “The party has been consistent on the backstop. It is not needed. No one is building a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Indeed, with every day that passes, it is becoming clearer that not even the Republic of Ireland ever believed the hard border spin.

“The backstop will place a border between Northern Ireland and GB. That is unacceptable both constitutionally and economically. If the EU really cared about Northern Ireland, they would be no more willing to build an east-west border than they are to build a north-south border.”

Mr Dodds said that his party wants to see “an orderly exit from the EU”.

However, he added: “That can be achieved but EU intransigence must be replaced by a recognition that the backstop is not acceptable.”