Catholics who feel Northern Irish are less likely to back unity than those who feel Irish

Professor 'John Garry of Queens University
Professor 'John Garry of Queens University

The Nolan Show presented a fascinating insight into Northern Ireland citizens’ views on a united Ireland.

The show on November 4, in tandem with RTE’s Prime Time, reported results from the RTE/BBCNI all-island survey of over 2000 people.

The first graphic shown on the show will have made grim viewing for those advocating a border poll on the question. Only 13 percent of people in Northern Ireland favour Irish unity in the short to medium term. It is on the basis of survey findings such as this that a border poll is not only unlikely to lead to a united Ireland but is also unlikely to be held.

The Secretary of State will only countenance calling a border poll if there is plausible evidence of a groundswell of opinion favouring unity. The former Secretary of State Owen Patterson ruled out holding a border poll on the basis of a previous survey showing only 17 percent in favour of unity.

Pro-unity activists may, however, take a lot more heart from another question in the survey which asks about long term aspirations: Do you want a united Ireland in your lifetime? Here support levels are much higher: 30 percent overall and 57 percent among Catholics.

This might encourage those who believe that, in the course of an actual referendum campaign on the border issue, this level of support could be turned into pro-unity votes and a pro-unity bandwagon effect could be created. A lot, however, would hang on the nature of the campaign.

Further questions in the survey sought to tease out how staunch or fickle the pro-unity aspirations are. Respondents were asked whether they would support unity if it meant a/ less tax, b/ no change in tax or c/ more tax. The biggest impact on beliefs was the prospect of paying more tax. This caused a lot of those who said they were in favour of unity in their lifetime to change their mind.

This suggests that the relatively high level of support for a united Ireland ‘in my lifetime’ is malleable: depending on the campaign these supporters may slip. As in any electoral campaign the threat of paying more tax is a powerful one and would need to be countered in a persuasive way by pro-unity actors in order to turn aspirational united Irelanders into real world voters for a united Ireland.

Further analysis of the polling data reveals the type of people who say they favour a united Ireland but change their tune when faced with paying more tax. As with many things in Northern Ireland, identity plays a key role in explaining this.

Regarding identity the survey asked respondents whether they identified as ‘Irish’ ‘Northern Irish’ or ‘British’. Twenty two percent of all respondents described themselves as Northern Irish, and one quarter of Catholics did so. Catholics who regard themselves as Irish are much more likely than Catholics who see themselves as Northern Irish to favour unity.

Also, and crucially, the Northern Irish Catholics who do say they favour unity in their lifetime are precisely the people who change their mind when faced with the spectre of tax increases.

In contrast, the threat of tax increases does not make ‘Irish’ Catholics who favour a united Ireland change their mind; they are more staunch and firm in their beliefs.

In short, there is very little support for a united Ireland in the short to medium term, there is higher support in the long term but this support is conditional upon tax implications and those Catholics with weaker ethno-national identity (i.e. Northern Irish rather than Irish) are the quickest to jump off the unity ship if its seen as heading to the iceberg of more tax.

There are implications for political strategists. From the perspective of pro-unity campaigners, there is a need to argue that the long term aspirations question is the more compelling indicator of support for a united Ireland and it is on the basis of data on this question rather than the short term question that the Secretary of State should base a decision on whether to hold a border poll.

A difficulty here is that this ‘united Ireland in your lifetime’ question does not present respondents with the set of real world options (direct rule, devolution, unity) that would be in play in any debate on a united Ireland and we know that when these options are presented ‘Devolution in the UK’ receives most support.

Further, even if a border poll is held, a serious challenge for pro-unity campaigners is to either win or not be derailed by the economic debate. One approach would be to steer any campaign away from economics altogether and win the battle for hearts rather than minds. Equally, the survey findings suggest that it would likely be highly beneficial for pro-union actors to simply and calmly talk about the negative tax implications, rather than aspects of identity.

If pro-unity campaigners did take on the economic debate the data from the survey suggests they are likely to need a robust and well-grounded evidence-based argument that the efficiencies of a single island economy are such that increased taxation is not necessary to offset the annual financial contribution from London to Northern Ireland.

The more convincing that case the less likely is erosion of support for unity during the campaign.

• John Garry is Professor of Political Behaviour and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice, Queen’s University Belfast. He was anadvisor to RTE and BBC in the generation and interpretation of the survey and is Director of the ESRC-funded study of the 2016 Northern Ireland Assembly election