‘Unionists take heart: gold-standard polls show 22% back Irish unity’
Paying close attention to exactly how opinion polls about Irish re-unification are carried out is “of constitutional importance” says a leading academic – adding that the best available evidence should soothe fears of unionists.
Dr Graham Gudgin made the remarks as the issue once again made it into the headlines this week, with the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) reportedly refusing to say under exactly what circumstances a border poll would happen.
Dr Graham Gudgin was speaking to the News Letter as the issue once again made it into the headlines this week, with the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) reportedly refusing to say under exactly what circumstances a border poll would happen.
According to the Irish Times, the NIO has declined to provide such details.
Also in the last week there was a piece in the News Letter from investigative journalist Marcus Leroux, in which he argued that “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” (in other words, less politically-engaged people tend not to favour re-unification).
And all of these stories come against a general backdrop of a ramped-up drive for a border poll from Sinn Fein.
The Northern Ireland Act 1998 allows the NI Secretary of the day to “exercise the power [to hold a referendum] if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”.
Dr Gudgin (an economist and former special advisor to David Trimble) acknowledged that some pollsters have put support for a united Ireland as being not far off 50–50.
But he urged everybody to keep in mind what he refers to as “the gold standard” of polling in the Province – namely the “Life and Times Survey”.
It has been running regularly since 1998, and was set up by the Province’s two main universities.
Made up of face-to-face interviews with about 1,200 people – some lasting up to 90 minutes – he said it is “easily the most careful poll”.
“It tends to say that support for a united Ireland runs at about 22%,” he said.
For instance in 2019 it asked: Do you think the long-term policy for Northern Ireland should be for it to remain part of the UK or, to reunify with the rest of Ireland?
60% said remain, and only 22% said reunify (the numbers are stable too; in 2007 the figures were 66% and 23% respectively).
Also in 2019 it asked people how they would vote if a border poll were called tomorrow.
51% would vote against Irish unity – more than double the 25% who would vote in favour.
Most of the rest did not know, or would not vote.
“Support for a united Ireland is small,” he said.
“It doesn’t get much publicity.
“There’s quite a lot in there that would give unionists much more comfort.”
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