LucidTalk poll: Should there be a referendum on Irish unity?

The constitutional question is never far off the horizon in Northern Ireland politics. It suits both sides of the debate to keep it in perpetual proximity.

Unionist politicians mobilise their supporters to protect the status quo; for nationalist and republican political parties, it is the appetite and potential for constitutional change that keeps them in business. Swings and roundabouts, you might say.

Over the last 16 months, however, two events have arguably changed the nature of the debate — or, at least, have the potential to do so over time.

First, the Brexit referendum opened up the UK’s constitutional architecture. By endorsing one major constitutional change — leaving the European Union — further changes are not unthinkable.

Second, after March’s snap Assembly election, unionists found themselves without a majority of the available seats for the first time. At the same time, of course, it must be remembered that nationalist representatives are not in the majority. Unionists and nationalists are both minorities in the current (ghost) Assembly, but the latter may feel a relative sense of momentum.

Gerry Adams has called for a referendum on Irish unity, putting pressure on the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood to entertain the idea of a border poll after the Brexit process is complete. Eastwood, however, cautioned that a border poll should only be held if it was ‘winnable’. Arlene Foster dismissed the idea outright, arguing it would be ‘divisive and destabilising’.

What do citizens actually think?

In its latest ‘tracker poll’ for October, LucidTalk asked its online panel of 10,000 members for their views on the desirability of a border poll, the desired winning margin of any referendum result, and their preferred outcome if one were held. Responses were weighted to produce a representative sample of the Northern Ireland population.

Nearly 80% of respondents think there should be a border poll at some point in the future, including 47% who think it should happen within the next five years. Only one in five respondents are opposed to holding a border poll at all.

“Do you think there should be a Northern Ireland referendum on its constitutional position within the United Kingdom?” 2,080 responses (weighted).

This is a very interesting result, particularly when we dig into the identities of those who support and oppose holding a referendum on Irish unity. Unsurprisingly, a majority of unionists think that a border poll should never be held, while virtually all nationalists would like to see one at some point in the future. Strikingly, the vast majority of nationalists (80%) would like to see one within five years. The extent of their opposition to Brexit combined with a ‘greener’ set of Assembly election results in March, appear to have accelerated the perceived urgency of a border poll among nationalist voters.

“Do you think there should be a Northern Ireland referendum on its constitutional position within the United Kingdom?” 2,080 responses (weighted); displaying results by unionist/nationalist-republican/other.

It is notable, however, that a sizeable number of unionists (46%) are open to the idea of a border poll at some point down the line. Of these, most would prefer it to be at an unspecified point in the future. Of those who would prefer to see it occur within the next ten years, there may be a strategic calculation that holding a border poll sooner rather than later could stabilise Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

Among the ‘Others’ — who could be decisive in any referendum — two-thirds think a border poll should be held in the next decade. Respondents in this group may hold a variety of motivations: like strategic unionists, some may see a border poll as an opportunity to settle the issue, preserve the status quo, and move on to other issues; others may genuinely like to see constitutional change within a fairly short space of time.

Principle of Consent?

A further issue is the threshold at which people think a border poll should be won.

The Good Friday Agreement is, of course, very clear on the principle of consent for a change to Northern Ireland’s constitutional status:

It is hereby declared that Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll…

In other words, a simple majority of 50%+1 is sufficient for either side in a referendum to win.

Irrespective of the minimum requirements stipulated by the Good Friday Agreement, Leo Varadkar recently suggested that a higher threshold would be desirable, if not necessary. In an interview with BBC Spotlight, the Taoiseach said he thought Irish unity should only happen if there was a broader level of consensus.

In the LucidTalk poll, most respondents disagree with the Taoiseach. Nearly 90% of nationalists think a simple majority would be sufficient for constitutional change, whereas most unionists think that a super-majority should be required.

“There is a debate that perhaps the ‘winning point’ for a Northern Ireland referendum on its constitutional position within the United Kingdom should be more than 50%+1. What do you think the ‘winning point’ should be in such a referendum?” 2,080 responses (weighted).

“There is a debate that perhaps the ‘winning point’ for a Northern Ireland referendum on its constitutional position within the United Kingdom should be more than 50%+1. What do you think the ‘winning point’ should be in such a referendum?” 2,080 responses (weighted); displaying results by unionist/nationalist-republican/other.

This is hardly surprising. If nationalists want Irish unity, why should additional hurdles be imposed? If 51.9% was all it took for the UK to leave the European Union, why should it take a higher level of support for Northern Ireland to leave the UK? Conversely, without any super-majority requirement that might help to protect the status quo, unionists have much more to lose.

‘Other’ voters are more torn. A sizeable number think that 50%+1 should be an acceptable winning margin, but slightly more think that there should be a majority of at least two-thirds. This arguably reflects a tension within this group between those who are happy to accept the minimalist ‘principle of consent’ outlined in the Good Friday Agreement and those who would like to see fewer political divisions and greater consensus within Northern Ireland’s post-conflict society.

How would people vote?

Finally, the big question: how would people actually vote if a border poll were to be held tomorrow? LucidTalk adapted the wording of the Brexit referendum question to simulate the likely wording of the proposition in any Northern Ireland border poll.

A majority of respondents say they would vote to remain in the UK, while just a third say they would vote to leave.

“Should Northern Ireland REMAIN a part of the United Kingdom or LEAVE the United Kingdom and join the Republic of Ireland as one nation state, Ireland?” 2,080 responses (weighted).

In other words, despite the fact that nearly half of respondents would like to see a referendum on Irish unity within the next five years, the poll suggests that such a vote would not result in any change to the status quo. Even with one in ten respondents being undecided, a majority of voters would back Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK.

On the face of it, the 20-point margin between ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ suggest the referendum result would be fairly decisive.

In reality, things may not be so clearcut. The Brexit referendum shows that people can change their preferences during the course of a campaign, and that some voters may be more mobilised to vote than others.

Most importantly, perhaps, this distribution of ‘Remain’ versus ‘Leave’ voters applies only to the hypothetical scenario of a border poll being held tomorrow. What if it were held in five years’ time, or in ten years’ time? Do younger voters hold different preferences than older voters? What if a border poll were to be held after Brexit? Would it make a difference whether the UK’s final deal with the EU produced a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ border?

In short, to what extent are voters’ preferences fixed and to what extent do they depend on broader circumstances?

For further analysis of these important issues, we will continue our coverage of LucidTalk’s latest poll tomorrow on Northern Slant.

Methodology, and more on LucidTalk

Polling was carried out by Belfast based polling and market research company LucidTalk.

The project was carried out online for a period of 80 Hours from 1pm 20th October 2017 to 9pm 23rd October 2017 (80 Hours). The project targeted the established Northern Ireland (NI) LucidTalk online Opinion Panel (10,417 members) which is balanced by gender, age-group, area of residence, and community background, in order to be demographically representative of Northern Ireland.

3,813 full responses were received, and a data auditing process was carried out to ensure all completed poll-surveys were genuine ‘one-person, one-vote’ responses, and also to collate a robust and accurate balanced NI representative sample. This resulted in 2,080 responses being considered in terms of the final results — the results presented in this report.

All data results have been weighted by gender and community background to reflect the demographic composition of Northern Ireland resulting in 2,080 responses being considered in terms of the final results. All data results produced are accurate to a margin of error of +/-3.0%, at 95% confidence.

LucidTalk is a member of all recognised professional Polling and Market Research organisations, including the UK Market Research Society (UK-MRS), the British Polling Council (BPC), and ESOMAR (European Society of Market Research organisations).

For more information, visit and follow @LucidTalk on Twitter.

Originally published at Northern Slant.