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On Sunday, a poll by The Sunday Times found that the majority of people living in the North of Ireland want a border poll within the next five years. Senior politicians in both Britain and Ireland have also spoken more frequently about the likelihood of a united Ireland recently as the union seems to be more divided than ever under the pressure of Brexit. However, unionist politicians, such as Arlene Foster, have dismissed the idea of a border poll in the near future. So, is this just a phase of uncertainty in the wake of leaving the EU or is a united Ireland closer than we think?
What were the findings of the poll?
The recent Sunday Times poll found that 51% of people in Northern Ireland supported a referendum on a united Ireland within the next five years compared to 44% who were against. The poll also found that 47% of people still wanted to remain as part of the UK, while 42% were in favour of a united Ireland. However, most significantly the poll showed that 11% of people in the North were undecided when asked, meaning, if there was a referendum, it could easily swing in either direction. This shows an increasingly higher number of people supporting both a united Ireland and a referendum than in previous polls. So, what exactly are the reasons for this change?
The impact of Brexit
Brexit has undoubtedly had a massive part to play in this change in attitudes. Before the Brexit vote, the idea of a united Ireland seemed a long way off; however, in the wake of Britain exiting the EU, it is now at the forefront of British and Irish politics.
The majority of people in Northern Ireland voted against leaving the EU in 2016, with 56% voting to remain. Brexit has had more of an impact on Northern Ireland than perhaps any other part of the UK. To avoid a border across the island of Ireland, the North has remained as part of the EU single market, in contrast to the rest of Britain. As a result of this, there is now a border between Northern Ireland and the UK. Therefore, the north and south of Ireland are now economically united in a way that Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK no longer are.
It is not just the economy that is shifting towards a more united Ireland. Brexit has also impacted many people’s opinions on the issue. In 2019 the Northern Ireland Life and Times (NILT) survey showed more than half of nationalists (54%) believe a United Ireland will happen within 20 years. In addition to this the ESRC 2019 Northern Ireland General Election study, led by the University of Liverpool, found 77% of nationalists believe that Brexit has made a united Ireland more likely and 69% said it had made them more in favour.
In addition to this, Northern Ireland is now beginning to see real problems as a result of leaving the EU, such as food shortages and trading issues due to problems at the new border in the Irish sea. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and members of DUP who were previously supportive of one another on issues regarding Brexit are now bickering over the problems Northern Ireland are beginning to face as a result. With the North now in a state of economic and political turmoil as a result of leaving the EU, many more people may start to consider the possibilities of a united Ireland.
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Scottish independence and the breakdown of the union
Another contributing factor to the new interest in a united Ireland is how likely Scottish independence now is. All polls are now suggesting a majority of Scottish people support independence. Most recently, the same Sunday Times poll I have previously mentioned found that 49% backed independence compared to 44% against. Nicola Sturgeon has promised another referendum campaign if her government is re-elected in May.
The same Sunday Times poll found that, in Wales, where support for independence is traditionally weakest, support to leave the UK had grown. Although smaller than in the North of Ireland and Scotland, in Wales, 23% of people still backed leaving the UK while 31% supported a referendum.
If the people of Scotland do vote for independence in the near future this could spell out the beginning of the end for the union. Many believe that this will encourage people in the North of Ireland to follow suit.
There have also been discussions around how the upcoming 2021 census could impact calls for a united Ireland referendum. The findings of the census are widely suspected to show a nationalist majority in the North of Ireland for the first time in the 100 years since the separate state was created. Many believe the census results could give a new mandate for a border poll.
What have politicians had to say?
Many politicians have begun to publicly talk about the breakdown of the union and how a united Ireland is now more likely than ever. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote in the Daily Telegraph this week about the issue. He wrote that the UK was now at risk of becoming a “failed state” due to rising tensions between Downing Street and the rest of the UK nations.
George Osbourne, former chancellor of the exchequer held no punches this week when discussing the idea of Irish reunification. In the London Evening Standard, he wrote ““by unleashing English nationalism Brexit has made the future of the UK the central political issue of the coming decade. Northern Ireland is already heading for the exit door.” In addition to this, he stated “by remaining in the EU single market, it is for all economic intents and purposes now slowly becoming part of a united Ireland. Its prosperity now depends on its relationship with Dublin (and Brussels), not London. The politics will follow.”
However, Unionist politicians, such as Northern Ireland’s first minister Arlene Foster from the DUP, have opposed the idea of a border poll. Earlier this week, she stated that a border poll would be “absolutely reckless” and the focus should be on the pandemic. In opposition to this the Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill from Sinn Féin said there was an “unstoppable conversation under way.”
Is a united Ireland closer than we think?
This year marks 100 years since the creation of Northern Ireland. Over the past 100 years, there has always been support for a united Ireland, but Brexit and the likelihood of a breakdown in the union have created a stronger possibility of this becoming a reality in the near future. With polls now suggesting a border poll is supported by a majority of people in Northern Ireland within the next five years, a united Ireland may be closer than we once thought.