It will be recorded in the annals for different reasons, but 2020 was the year that a united Ireland became the topic of serious conversation.
In between Sinn Fein’s success in the Daíl elections and the taoiseach launching the new Shared Island Unit, we had an Economist cover (‘A United Ireland: Could it happen?’) and a succession of often unlikely English commentators urging Britain to recognise the prospect of Northern Ireland’s departure from the union.
Underpinning much of the discussion were a flurry of opinion polls showing the pro-union majority in Northern Ireland had dwindled to a precarious slither, if it had not disappeared entirely.
Add to that the disappearance of Stormont’s unionist majority in 2017, and you arrive at an increasingly familiar formula: demographics plus Brexit equals a united Ireland.
But a closer look at the numbers suggest that the discussions rely on a false premise.
The range of support for a united Ireland reported by opinion polls in recent years has been bewilderingly large: from as low as 19%(Life & Times, 2016) to 46%, representing a narrow majority of those who had made up their minds (Lord Ashcroft, September 2019).
‘Shy nationalists’ have been mooted as the explanation for the discrepancies – a furtive species of nationalist that emerges only behind the secrecy of a smartphone or a polling booth. They represent a sort of mirror image to the fabled ‘garden centre unionist’, those who are more likely to be found admiring the azaleas than at an Orange Order parade but are deemed crucial to unionism’s electoral strength.
But on closer examination, the wildly differing polling is the consequence of a third, previously unidentified political species: the scundered unionist.
How do we know they’re there? I looked at all of the recent polling on a united Ireland and examined only those surveys where there was a clear question asking how respondents voted in a recent election or referendum. By comparing the turnouts implied by these responses with the actual turnouts, you can work out how many non-voters have been captured by the poll.
The correlation is clear.
The better the pollsters were at seeking out the views of those who did not vote, the lower the support the poll showed for a united Ireland.
The scale of the effect is dramatic: of polls that had at least half the proportion of non-voters as the wider electorate, none reported support for a united Ireland above 30%.
The polling industry is generally grappling with how to reach less politically-engaged registered voters in an era where people are less likely to answer their landline or own one at all.
Will Jennings, a professor of politics at Southampton University, said that falling response rates were making it harder for pollsters to reach beyond the politically active.
“When we conducted the inquiry into the poor performance of the pre-election opinion polls for the 2015 general election, we found that the sorts of people responding to surveys tended to report disproportionately high levels of political engagement”, he said. “So the polls had too many people who said they had voted in 2010… This pointed to the problem of polls reaching too few non-voters that you have noted.”
But the general problem of pollsters reaching too few non-voters is colliding here with a Northern Irish peculiarity.
Non-voters here are not apathetic, the evidence suggests, they are just turned off by orange-green politics. In the Northern Ireland parlance, the non-voters are Neithers.
“They are much more likely to say they are neither unionist nor nationalist and just won’t play the old politics”, said Professor Jon Tonge, of Liverpool University.
Professor Tonge’s findings, laid out in the Northern Ireland Election study earlier this year, found non-voters in the December 2019 election were more socially liberal than voters on an array of questions, including abortion reform, gay marriage and mixed marriages.
Pro-union non-voters outnumbered pro-united Ireland non-voters by more than three to one. They are unionists too embarrassed by unionism to vote for a unionist party or, for the most part, to identify as unionists.
These findings are consistent with another source of authoritative data, the Northern Ireland Life & Times series, which has found a strong majority of Neithers have backed remaining in the UK.
While the proportion of Neithers dipped to 39% in the most recent Life & Times survey (2019), they have been the largest single block ahead of unionists and nationalists since 2006 and represent on average 45% of respondents over the last three years.
In any border poll, the Neithers will be the kingmakers.
But to complicate matters, they are elusive to the pollsters who are likely to provide some of the evidence for a future secretary of state to determine whether a border poll should be held under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
And not everybody believes that nationalism is so far away from the Good Friday Agreement threshold for a border poll as the Life & Times and Liverpool University analysis would suggest.
Bill White, the managing director of LucidTalk, whose online panel provided the ‘knife edge’ results showing a slim or no unionist majority, says that while there is a huge range between different polls for support for a united Ireland, there is some consistency in showing support for the union at around 50%(although the latest Life & Times edition suggested 60% support). “There’s a big consistency across all polls for the pro-union support, which means logically there are another 50 per cent who are either pro united Ireland or don’t know and are thinking about it”, he says. “There’s a tension in the face-to-face environment: people feel uncomfortable, perhaps subconsciously, and saying ‘don’t know’ is an easy cop-out.”
White is unapologetic about not polling a representative selection of non-voters.
“There’s no reputable polling company that would research non-voters on a hypothetical poll on a hypothetical date”, he says. “That’s witchdoctor market research.”
While White admits that he would expect a greater turnout in any border poll, he argues that active support for the union of around 50% is hardly cause for celebration for unionists.
On this point at least he is in accord with Professor Tonge of Liverpool University, whose general election study noted that “unionism has a significant problem in not attracting pro-union members of the electorate to vote”.
Professor Tonge’s analysis hints why. The majority of 18 to 29 year-olds did not vote in 2019, yet they have strident opinions and want to see society change.
Take younger Protestant non-voters, who were in turn the cohort least keen on sending their children to an ‘own-religion school’; the least bothered by the suggestion a close relative married someone of a different religion; and the most in favour of gay marriage equality.
It is not hard to see why they are politically homeless.
Taken in the round, a clear-eyed look at the numbers suggests that our template for understanding Northern Ireland is a generation out of date. It is as though we are extrapolating from a Nolan Show phone-in.
The saviours of unionism are no longer found in the garden centre – they are more likely to be found on Instagram and TikTok and they are increasingly unlikely to call themselves unionists. On the other side, nationalism, too, needs new recruits to achieve a breakthrough: Northern Ireland’s fate will not be determined by demography.
Six months after the Good Friday Agreement was hammered out, the late Oireachtas senator and Northern Ireland civil servant Maurice Hayes gave a speech in which he quoted Richard Rose, the political scientist: “The problem is, there’s no solution.”
Northern Ireland’s problems centred on “the great unbargainables” of allegiance and identity. We have internalised this model of understanding our politics and we find it confirmed every time we open social media or switch on the radio, let alone every election.
But Hayes offered a more hopeful metaphor – that of a broken bone. “It is necessary first to deal with the pain and reduce the swelling before the bones can be brought together and healing affected,” Hayes said.
The old wounds still ache and the scars are still raw. But while we’ve been looking elsewhere new bone has been slowly fusing.
• Marcus Leroux is an investigative reporter. He wrote this article for the latest edition of Fortnight magazine, where you can see some of the underlying data
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