Twice as many Northern Irish voters favour the status quo over unity. Southern Irish voters back unification, but as a low priority
Published: 6 December 2022
oday is the centenary of the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. It passed without celebration, for what weighs heavily in the Irish memory is that it was followed by a political split that led to a vicious civil war between erstwhile comrades. It also further poisoned the relationship between the two new polities on the island: the Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland and the Catholic Free State. For a hundred years, extreme nationalists killed in the name of Irish unity and their loyalist counterparts retaliated in the name of the Union.
After the murders largely stopped, we were told by Irish nationalists that Brexit would destroy the United Kingdom. So it was no surprise that Sinn Fein, north and south, demanded border polls and unsettled unionists by their confidence that Irish unity was historically inevitable. But it is not. In fact, it’s beginning to look as if one of Brexit’s unexpected consequences is to encourage many to stick with the status quo, as they begin to comprehend the sheer complexity of trying to undo the Union.
Over the past few days, the results of detailed, simultaneous, identical, academically heavyweight polls taken in Northern Ireland and the Republic have been released. They dash the dreams of naive nationalists. In Northern Ireland, 50 per cent said they would vote against Irish unity and only 27 per cent were in favour. And just 55 per cent of Catholics were on-side with unification, with 21 per cent wanting to stay part of the UK.
Digging down produced more worrying results for Sinn Fein: while about 18 per cent of voters said they would find a vote in favour of united Ireland “almost impossible to accept”, only 2 per cent felt that way about staying in the UK. This is already creating alarm in the Republic, where there is a growing fear that a united Ireland could end up with an unassimilable loyalist opposition mirroring the republican violence inflicted on Northern Ireland with various degrees of intensity ever since partition in 1921.
While 66 per cent in the Republic said they would vote for unity, meanwhile, it has emerged from further polls that the electorate has no enthusiasm for making such concessions as agreeing a new national anthem, or indeed allowing a minority unionist veto on laws they found objectionable.
It’s my “I-told-you-so” moment, for I’ve been saying for years, to nationalist derision, that the desire for Irish unity in the south is just a vague aspiration summed up for me by this story. Several years ago, in Dublin, I was in a taxi when on the radio someone said something about a united Ireland. “How would you feel about that?” I asked the taxi driver. “I wouldn’t mind one bit,” he said, “as long as it has no effect whatsoever on the twenty-six counties.”
I’ve always believed that, had the south wooed the north, a gradual coming together might have developed organically, but instead the most ardent nationalists chose violence. Even today, the Sinn Fein leadership refuses to apologise for the appalling carnage and cruelty wreaked by republicans on their neighbours and they publicly eulogise IRA murderers.
Other politicians have learnt a lot. The other day I listened to a thoughtful speech by the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, a historian, discussing how the different traditions in Ireland can get to know each other and co-operate in the interests of the island without any pressure to have divisive border polls. But if Sinn Fein take over, the new century could be nightmarish, too.