Upsurge in popular support for Irish unification

By Tom O’Donnell

Two significant opinion polls have put the question of Irish unification firmly on the agenda.

A poll commissioned by the Tory peer Ashcroft showed a narrow lead among voters in Northern Ireland for leaving the UK and joining the republic of Ireland, 51% to 49%.  It is extremely rare but not unprecedented for a poll to show even a narrow majority support for Irish unification. It completely contradicts the entire basis of the state, which was organised on a sectarian headcount (the other three counties of Ulster were excluded from the UK, because they were primarily nationalist) to have majority unionist support.

This poll was quickly followed by another of British voters, showing strong support for poll in Ireland on unification. A clear majority of all voters, 52% are in favour of a poll, which rises to 73% in favour and 27% against once don’t knows are excluded.  This is even stronger than the 60%-40% in favour of another referendum on Scottish independence which was included in the poll.

The backdrop is of course the potential threat to Ireland as a whole arising from Brexit, with the risk of a new ‘hard’ or policed border in the north of Ireland and the impact on living standards across the island.

As the rift of Brexit runs right across the country, the damage to the Irish economy is potentially even greater than it is to Britain. At the same time, the imposition of a policed border would undermine both the spirit and the letter of the Good Friday Agreement, and create political upheaval across Ireland. 

The popular response has been the growth in support for the democratic and logical outcome in Ireland represented by unification.

Whatever the outcome, the entire Brexit process confirms that the British state can never represent the needs of Irish people. Popular opinion in the south is solidly against Brexit, while northern Irish voters voted 56% to 44% to Remain in the 2016 referendum. Brexit has proceeded against their wishes, and in contravention of the Good Friday Agreement, which states that there can be no constitutional change in the north without the consent of a majority there.

One of the more pointless campaigns of the recent period has been a doomed effort to get Sinn Féin to take up its seats at Westminster, especially for Brexit votes. This ignores completely both the mandate from northern voters, who support the party’s principled abstentionism, as well as the likelihood that unionists across the political parties in Westminster would baulk at sharing the lobby with committed Irish republicans, and thereby increase the pro-Brexit votes.

Instead, it should be clear that Britain’s continued dominance of one part of Ireland has a pernicious effect on political life across these islands, including Britain itself.  The role of DUP is exhibit A in that argument.  The logical, democratic solution is for Britain to withdraw from Ireland altogether, as allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement and which, from these polls, is gaining in popular support.