The pessimism of unionism revealed again in the Lord Ashcroft poll is based on their uncomfortable reliance on perfidious Albion – ‘more voters thought the Westminster government would rather see Northern Ireland leave the UK than thought it would rather keep the province as part of the Union. Only 11% of voters, and only 21% of Unionists, said they thought Westminster very much wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK. A further 22% of all voters thought it would prefer to keep the province as part of the Union.’
If the Northern state were really as British as Finchley this would be inexplicable.
‘In our focus groups, voters on all sides said they thought Northern Ireland was an “inconvenience” or an “afterthought” for the rest of the UK. The “levelling up” agenda seemed to apply to the north of England, rather than anywhere further afield.’
Nationalist voters are more convinced that Britain wants to get out, with 68% believing this. Given the determination of the British State to defeat the struggle against its rule by some of them this is somewhat surprising, but is only one element of their view of the world, and in part reflects their view of the patent illegitimacy of partition and the palpable failure of the Northern state to be what is considered ‘normal’.
Another element is that one third of nationalists think the Southern state is indifferent or opposed to a united Ireland. While almost 95% think there should be a referendum on Irish unity within 10 years and 86% think there will be, there is apprehension at how it might occur. Commentary to the poll states that ‘Many were also nervous about the prospect, including some who favoured a united Ireland in principle. They tended to think that a referendum would be divisive, re-awakening tensions rather than resolving them, and that a return to violence would be more than likely.’
This view can hardly be dismissed, since every change to the Northern State, including the demand for civil rights, has been met with protest and violence by unionism. The view that a referendum in the South should follow one in the North is an additional incentive for unionist aggression and to make any threats credible.
The latest change is the Protocol to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the British government and EU following Brexit. Unionist leaders claim it has constitutional implications, that their agreement to it is therefore required, and that they’re not giving it. Since the argued direct constitutional effect is mistaken, although not its implications, unionism is arguing – as it always does – that no change can be made to the arrangements within the Northern State without its agreement. Since its politics are overwhelmingly sectarian and wholly reactionary this is one reason why partition should be ended and a united Ireland is progressive.
The main reason for nationalist optimism is demographic, that the share of the Catholic population is growing and Protestant Unionist one is declining; Ashcroft states that ‘one Catholic voter told us cheerfully and candidly in nationalist Strabane, “we breed better than they do. They have big TVs; we have big families.” More than seven in ten voters aged under 25 said they would vote for a united Ireland.’
The poll states that ‘Support for a united Ireland declined sharply with age: 71% of those aged 18-24 said they would vote for unification, with 24% opting to stay in the UK; among those aged 65 or over, only 25% backed a united Ireland, with 55% choosing the status quo.’
It also reports the finding that ‘More than a quarter (27%) of voters said they had changed their mind as to whether Northern Ireland should stay in the UK . . . Among neutrals, 62% thought voters would choose the status quo tomorrow, but 66% thought they would back a united Ireland in ten years’ time.’ Nationalists anticipate that people will change their minds and change them in only one direction.
One reason for this belief is the claimed effect of Brexit. According to the poll 95% of nationalists/republicans opposed Brexit while 66% of unionists supported it. The 30% of unionists who opposed Brexit and the 92% of those defined as ‘neutral’ (those who described themselves as neutral on the constitution) who also opposed it are expected to, or at least it is hoped will, change their views on the constitutional question because of the UK leaving the EU.
The poll makes much of its effects – ‘Participants in all our focus groups spoke about rising prices and shortages of goods, including food, clothes, household items and building materials. Several noted that ordering items from overseas had become more expensive or in some cases impossible; several had experienced Amazon being unable to ship certain items to Northern Ireland. Such problems were attributed to Brexit, the Protocol, covid, the Suez Canal blockage, or various combinations of all four.’
It finds that ‘Nearly 9 in 10 voters (88%) said they thought Brexit had been a cause of shortages of food and other goods in Northern Ireland, including 62% who said it had been a major factor. This was especially true of Nationalist/Republicans, with 73% of 2017 SDLP voters and 90% of Sinn Féin voters saying they believed Brexit had been a major factor.’
‘Three quarters of 2016 Leave voters said Brexit had had a part to play in shortages, including 29% thinking it had been a major factor.’
‘Unionists, however, were more likely to blame the pandemic and (especially) the Northern Ireland Protocol. Nearly 8 in 10 (78%) of them, including 89% of 2017 DUP voters, said they thought the Protocol had been a major factor, compared to 38% who said the same of Brexit more generally.’
The poll asked ‘whether Brexit had affected people’s views as to whether Northern Ireland should be part of the UK. For three quarters, it had made no difference: 43% said they had thought the province should be part of the UK before Brexit and still did; 32% said they had favoured a united Ireland before Brexit and they still did.’
However, ‘13% said they had thought Northern Ireland should stay in the UK before Brexit, but now favoured a united Ireland. This included 40% of 2017 SDLP voters, 34% of those who had backed the Alliance party, and 36% of those who described themselves as neutral on the constitution.
A further 9% (including 36% of 2017 Alliance voters, 29% of constitutional neutrals and 9% of self-described Unionists) said Brexit had made them less sure that Northern Ireland should be part of the UK.’
Again, its perceived effects reflect previous dispositions, with 34% of unionists believing Brexit makes a united Ireland more likely, 99% of nationalists thinking it does, and 89% of ‘neutrals’ believing the same. Nationalist optimism and unionist pessimism are long standing but have not changed the existing political division. It is therefore an open question whether Brexit will have the effect of persuading some unionists or ‘neutrals’ to support a united Ireland. It will certainly not strengthen opposition to it and its longer term economic effects may be more powerful in shifting views than relatively minor shortages.
to be continued
Back to part 1
Forward to part 3
Political Opinion polls never make for a good guide to understanding. What matters is that Unionism is not able to make the sort of liberal compromises required to establish enduring political stability. It was the right wing of unionism led by Paisley in the middle of the 1960s that led to the loss of the Unionist dominated Devolved Government in 1972, the so called civil rights movement merely added to the troubles facing the big house Unionist regime at the time. The bulk of the ‘nationalist’ population always wanted the Devolved Administration to work on the basis of a liberal conception of equality of opportunity law and ethos, the United Ireland or bust section always had a weak hand to play with, and today in the guise of Sinn Fein still overestimates its own importance as the provisional IRA did in the past 30 years. If there is to be a new all Ireland in the near future the reactionary unionists will likely cause to happen. They are about to make yet another daft political standoff over the Brexit protocol. They expect the British Government to start a business trade war with the European Union just to please about 700,000 ulster reactionaries. I don’t think so!