Twice as many Northern Irish voters would stay in UK rather than choose united Ireland

Union flags Belfast street - Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images Europe
Union flags Belfast street - Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images Europe

Twice as many Northern Irish voters would choose to remain part of the UK rather than a united Ireland in a reunification referendum, a poll has found.

Voters in the Republic of Ireland would support unification by a majority of four to one, an Ipsos poll for the Irish Times revealed.

Reunification can only happen if it is supported by a majority in both Northern Ireland and the Republic in two separate border polls, according to the Good Friday Agreement.

The DUP said the poll proved it was right to boycott Stormont over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which created the Irish Sea border to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.

“A strong majority in Northern Ireland support the Union,” said DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson. “That’s why the DUP is standing strong to oppose the Union-subjugating Protocol.”

The findings are a blow to Sinn Fein, which predicted unity referendums by 2030 after the party toppled the DUP to become the largest in Northern Ireland for the first time in May elections.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson - PA
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson - PA

Sinn Fein called for preparations for a vote to be stepped up after a census showed Catholics outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time in the country’s history in September.

Tensions over Brexit, which most Northern Irish voters opposed in the 2016 referendum, and the Protocol, as well as high-profile unity events on both sides of the border, have given added impetus to the debate over reunification.

More than three quarters of Irish voters want a border poll within five years, while 55 per cent of those polled in Northern Ireland back one within a decade.

Of those who don’t identify as Unionist or Nationalist in Northern Ireland, more than half (51 per cent) were in favour of a vote.

British law dictates that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland should order a vote if it “appears likely” a majority of voters want a united Ireland but is unclear on how that should be decided. The Irish Government must also agree to hold a vote.

The Irish Times surveyed more than 1,000 voters in Northern Ireland and the Republic in August and September.

Half of the Northern Irish voters said they would vote to remain part of the UK. That included 21 per cent of voters from a Catholic background, who traditionally favour reunification.

Twenty-six per cent said they would vote for reunification, while 19 per cent were undecided. Even if every one of the undecided voters were to plump for Irish unity, the pro-Union vote would still carry the day.

Irish voters in favour of reunification

Irish voters are overwhelmingly in favour of reunification, according to the poll. Almost two thirds (66 per cent) supported it, compared with just 16 per cent against and 13 per cent undecided.

The research also found that almost half of Irish voters would be less likely to vote for reunification if they had to make concessions such as changes to the National Anthem or flag.

Forty-five per cent of voters would be less likely to vote for a united Ireland in the face of a Unionist veto, the poll also found.

Thirty-eight per cent of Irish voters thought the most important factor to consider would be if a united Ireland would be “peaceful”. Almost a third (33 per cent) said the impact on the economy was the most crucial.

Northern Irish voters were anxious over healthcare, with 28 per cent saying it was their biggest concern over reunification.

While the NHS waiting lists in Northern Ireland are the longest in the UK, prescription medicines are as much as seven times more expensive in the Republic than the North.

People in Ireland also pay for GP appointments, for example, which is not the case in Northern Ireland.

Just 19 per cent of Northern Irish voters said peace was the most important factor, while the majority (32 per cent), were most concerned about the economic impact.

Many voters in both countries said they would be influenced over whether reunification made them richer or poorer.

Estimates for the cost of reunification range from between £3.4 billion a year to £26 billion a year. The final sum would depend on how much of the cost the UK would be willing to bear.