England, Wales and Scotland all now in favour of Irish unification

The Good Friday Agreement gives the majority in Northern Ireland the right  to decide whether Northern Ireland should remain in the Union with Britain or become part of a united Ireland. It gives no say on the matter to the people of Britain whatsoever, beyond mandating the Secretary of State to call a border poll in Northern Ireland, should he form the view that such a poll is likely to be carried.

However, in any true democracy, all major decisions are taken by the people as a whole, and we are constantly reminded that Brexit was a decision of all the people of the UK as a whole, and thus over-rode the individual preferences of the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland. It would be a brave British government which ignored popular sentiment in Britain just because opinion within Northern Ireland was still sharply divided.

Now a new opinion poll in Britain has shown there are majorities for Irish re-unification in England, Scotland and Wales:

Instead of getting a simple Yes, No answer from those polled, people were asked to place their attitudes about unification and other issues on a sliding scale from minus 10, or Definitely Not, to plus 10, Definitely Yes.

Asked if Northern Ireland should unite with the Republic, Scots placed themselves at 1.9 on the positive side of the scale, England came in at 0.9, Wales at 0.6, even with those polled in Northern Ireland at 0.6 on the positive scale in favour.

However, the detailed breakdown illustrates sharp divisions in NI society, with 31 per cent saying Irish unity is something they “definitely do not want”, while a slightly smaller number, 28 per cent, say they “definitely do want it”.

“Attitudes about reunification are strikingly different. Attitudes in Northern Ireland itself fall very near the midpoint. But the electorates in England, Scotland and Wales are each more supportive of reunification,” say the two academics.

The findings, though more complicated than simple Yes, No questions, are significant, says professor of political science at the University of Edinburgh, Ailsa Henderson, who will present findings on Thursday in Belfast at the Imagine! festival.

“The balance in England and Wales is negative towards independence for Scotland and about independence for their own territories. What is noteworthy about attitudes to NI, however, is that everyone in England, Scotland and Wales is above the midpoint about its future,” she says, emphasising the word “everyone”.

And there is drift in the numbers compared with the 2021 State of the Union Survey: “We have seen opinion in Northern Ireland [about unification] move to the other side of the midpoint. Barely, but it is now above the midpoint,” she says.

Scotland is most enthusiastic about independence for Northern Ireland, along the lines of “Go forth and prosper, friend”, but support for Irish unity in Wales and England could be interpreted more negatively, rather like wishing for the departure of a problem.

The survey is interesting because it reinforces perceptions that attitudes to Scottish independence are broadly negative in England and Wales while broadly balanced in Scotland and Northern Ireland and no territory supports English or Welsh independence.

Even in Northern Ireland, which remains very polarised with a 31% to 28% majority for those who definitely want the Union with Britain compared to Irish re-unification, the average sentiment is 0.6 points in favour of a united Ireland when all the less extreme views on the scale of -10 to +10 are taken into account. (respondents who score +1 to +9 outnumber those who score -1 to -9 by 22% to 12% as shown in the graphic above).

What this appears to mean is that the centre ground in Northern Ireland is leaning towards re-unification, cancelling out and overcoming the slight plurality of voters absolutely in favour of the Union as opposed to re-unification. Getting that middle ground to actually turn out and vote would be crucial in determining the outcome of any border poll. People with less extreme views will be more open to persuasion and perhaps, less likely to turn out and vote.

However the outcome in the rest of Britain couldn’t be clearer:

The Scottish view, says Henderson, is “a genuine wish” for Irish unity and for Northern Ireland to have the constitutional future that it wants to have: “So, if we can’t break free, then maybe you can, that sort of thing.

“There are different reasons in different parts of the UK explaining the views taken about Northern Ireland leaving the Union. In England, it’s probably more the ‘bugger off’ variety. In Scotland, it’s probably, ‘Go and live your best life’.

“The idea that a majority in three nations in a multi-state union with varying levels of intensity favour the departure of the fourth nation in that union is highly unusual,” says Richard Wyn Jones, professor of Welsh politics and director of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre.

“This is very significant. Attitudes towards Northern Ireland look very, very different from attitudes elsewhere. It is highly unusual in a multinational state, or whatever you describe the UK as, that the aggregate in Scotland and England and Wales is that Ireland should be unified,” he says.

The survey is part of a series which also tested attitudes to Brexit in previous years:

“One would need to be quite careful about jumping to any big conclusions,” he says. However, attitudes about Brexit shown in the 2021 survey offers some guidance, Henderson says, since 62 per cent of Leave voters in England, 69 per cent of those who voted for Brexit in Wales then regarded the Irish Sea “border” as a price worth paying for Brexit.

“It is also the case that more than half of voters in England and Wales say they either wanted an Irish Sea border anyway, or that it is a price worth paying for Brexit,” the 2021 survey carried out by the same two academics records.

“There is this sense that Northern Ireland is seen as a more expendable part of the United Kingdom than other parts. But it’s also the case that every time we ask about Northern Ireland, the “don’t know’ figures just jump through the roof,” says Henderson.

The political controversy in London over recent years about the post-Brexit landscape perfectly mirrors attitudes held by a majority in England and Wales and, to a lesser extent, Scotland about the future of NI, says Wyn Jones.

“The bottom line is the fact that Northern Ireland, from a unionist perspective, has been sacrificed for Brexit is entirely consistent with public attitudes in the rest of the UK,” said Wyn Jones.

The UK government Command Paper “Safeguarding the Union” makes great play of addressing DUP concerns about the economic re-unification of Ireland through the development of an all-Ireland economy. However, it seems the UK government has an even bigger job on its hands persuading a majority of people in England, Scotland, and Wales, that the Union with Northern Ireland is such a good idea.

It appears that the DUP has not endeared itself to that majority, and ensured that, psychologically at least, the distance between Britain and Northern Ireland has never been greater. Selling the Union within Northern Ireland may be the task the DUP has set itself. But selling it to the rest of the UK may be an altogether harder sell.

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