Two separate polls have found no evidence that Brexit has yet caused a radical shift in public opinion which would make a referendum on a united Ireland remotely winnable.
In findings which have added significance because of the prime minister’s reported suggestion to Tory MPs last week that she was not confident a border poll would definitely be won by unionism, an Ipsos MORI poll for academics found that just 21.1% of people in Northern Ireland would vote for Irish unity after the UK leaves the EU.
The poll, commissioned by academics at Queen’s University Belfast for a major piece of research examining how Brexit is shaping political opinion in Northern Ireland, found that not even half of Catholics would vote for a united Ireland.
Just 42.6% of Catholics favouring that option – although a large percentage, 26%, were undecided.
And a second poll, commissioned by think tank Policy Exchange ahead of a major conference in London today examining the future of the Union, found that a clear majority of people across the UK are in favour of the Union in its current form.
There was 68% support in England, 52% in Scotland, 66% in Wales and 59% in Northern Ireland.
The ICM poll also found that a majority of people in the UK say their support for the Union has remained constant or has risen in recent years – 78% in England, 60% in Scotland, 69% in Wales, 70% in Northern Ireland.
However, the research found concern across all nations – particularly in Northern Ireland – about the impact of Brexit on the Union.
Fifty-eight pc of people in England, 59% in Scotland, 54% in Wales and 60% in Northern Ireland believe that Brexit has made the break up of the UK more likely.
Policy Exchange’s director, Dean Godson, said: “Support for the Union is strong – but people are understandably nervous about the future. The UK needs a ‘new Unionism’, one based not just on the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, but on the regions and peoples within them.”
The ICM poll was conducted last week and had a national sample size of 2,060 – but a smaller sample in Northern Ireland of 500.
The academic survey, conducted in February and March, had a sample of 1,000 in Northern Ireland where it found widespread opposition to a ‘hard Brexit’, with Catholics particularly opposed not just to a significant strengthening of the Irish border but also strongly opposing any attempt to effectively move that border to the Irish Sea, something which until now has been most vocally opposed by unionists.
Some 61% of the population – with almost identical levels of support among both Protestants and Catholics – are in favour of the UK as a whole remaining in the customs union and single market.
People were asked “when the UK leaves the EU, if there was a referendum in Northern Ireland asking people whether they want Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom or to reunify with the rest of Ireland, how would you vote in that referendum?”
The poll also showed the strong conditionality of Catholic support for a united Ireland.
If Irish unity led to Catholic voters being £3,500 a year worse off, just 22% of Catholics would vote for unity, yet if it led to them being £3,500 better off that figure would more than double to over 54%.
The research also demonstrated how in the minds of many Catholic voters the UK’s decision on the EU is directly linked to the issue of a united Ireland.
Just 28% of Catholics would vote for a united Ireland if the UK changed its mind and remained in the EU while 53% of Catholics would vote for a united Ireland if there was a ‘hard’ Brexit, the poll found.
However, although the research discovered deep disquiet about Brexit among many Catholics and strong opposition to a hardening of the porous Irish border, there was a hint of one potential area for compromise.
If technological solutions can contribute to keeping the post-Brexit border largely as it is, the survey suggests that most Catholics would be prepared to accept that.
Just 20% of Catholics said that border cameras would be “almost impossible to accept”.
One pro-Remain Catholic said: “Cameras wouldn’t annoy me, CCTV is everywhere in Northern Ireland.”
That finding is particularly striking because the government and the EU have already ruled out such a move, in the apparent belief that it would be unacceptable to nationalists.
In December, London and Brussels formally agreed not to have a hard border and defined those words in sweeping terms, stating that it includes “any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls”, which would rule out even the most unobtrusive cameras.
The poll found that nearly one in 10 Catholics (9%), and 15% of Catholics who vote for Sinn Fein, would support border cameras being vandalised.
The academics’ work, which was funded by The UK in a Changing Europe and is published today in a 92-page report, harnessed both quantitative research in the form of the survey by Ipsos MORI and qualitative research from a ‘deliberative forum’ in which the issues were discussed.
Anonymised comments from that forum contain glimpses of hope for republicanism that Brexit can at the very least boost support for a united Ireland and that if there was a border poll there is fertile ground which the pro-united Ireland campaign could cultivate if its message resonated with the right voters.
One Catholic voter in early middle life who voted Remain said: “I was kind of unsure ... then when Brexit happened I definitely wanted a united Ireland again because it would mean being part of the EU as well.”
And a Protestant in the same age bracket who voted for Leave said: “I think before Brexit, if I was asked about a referendum with the South I wouldn’t … but now that you know what the UK is walking into … I think it’s more appealing.”
There was, however, scepticism among many Catholics about how realistic a united Ireland is at this point.
One female Catholic voter aged over 60 said that most people in the Republic “don’t want anything to do with the North really because they don’t want the bother that comes with it and the troubles that comes with it”.
Another female Catholic voter aged between 18 and 29 said: “I’ve spent a lot of time down south talking to other people, and they just don’t care about the same things people in the North would care about.
“Like, politics wise they are nearly blind to everything that goes on up here.”
Queen’s University Belfast professor John Garry, who led the research team, said that on the possibility of a united Ireland “there is not currently a groundswell of opinion in favour but there is evidence that, in the Catholic community, there could be a sizeable increase in pro-unity views in the context of a ‘hard Brexit’”.