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Fewer Brits now support Irish reunification than in 1998

A unionist stands under the statue of Edward Carson outside Northern Ireland's Parliament Buildings. Credit: Getty.

February 20, 2023 - 2:00pm

If readers were asked to guess whether support among mainland Britons for Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom would be higher or lower today than in 1998, which would you pick?

Following years of post-Brexit wrangling, Brussels and its sympathisers have told a very one-sided story about the Belfast Agreement and the threat to it posed variously by ‘English nationalist’ Brexiteers and truculent Ulster Unionists.

Little has been done to challenge this narrative, even as Rishi Sunak today seems to be pushing back the announcement of yet another effort to resolve the running sore that is the Irish Sea customs border. So it may be surprising to learn the following from the latest British Social Attitudes survey:

Those in Britain who support Irish reunification has fallen from 52% at the time of the Good Friday agreement in 1998 to 41% now. In contrast, 49% believe now that Northern Ireland should be part of the UK, compared with 26% in 1998.
- BSA

The BSA does not drill down into why they feel this way. However, one possibility is the end of the IRA’s terrorist campaign on the mainland; another is that the Belfast Agreement itself legitimised the Province’s British status in British minds, making the ‘Troops Out!’ view that the UK was an occupying power holding Ulster through force harder to maintain.

While it should be noted that support in Northern Ireland for Irish reunification has risen from 14% in 2015 to 30% now, the British figures are remarkable numbers nonetheless. This is especially so given the widespread assertion that many Brexiteers are ‘English nationalists’ who dislike the EU more than they value other parts of the Union.

It suggests to me that, for all that both the Conservatives and the Unionists have botched making their case since 2016, the very fact of Northern Ireland being a big part of the national debate over the past few years has helped to rekindle support for its position.

Given that those on the Left tend on average to be more sympathetic to the Irish nationalist position, it also seems plausible that the surge in support since 1998 would be especially pronounced among Tory-leaning voters, which is backed up by another BSA finding: “In 2011 24% of Conservative supporters in England said that Scotland should become independent [
] Now only 16% of Conservatives express that view”.

So it seems that familiarity with the issue has not bred the anticipated contempt; nor has the prospect of an easier route to power by shedding around 50 reliably anti-Conservative seats from the House of Commons.

All this suggests that Unionism’s decades-long insistence on excluding itself from national politics has been counter-productive. Out of sight is not just out of mind — it’s out of heart, as well.


Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

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Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 year ago

There have been two Irish born British Prime Ministers, but none for nearly 200 years. For as long as Northern Ireland returns MPs from regional parties only, it can never have a locally elected minister. Within the past three decades there has been a Scottish Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer (2), Foreign Secretary (2), Home Secretary, Defence Secretary (4), and President of the Board of Trade (2). For as long as the SNP dominate Scottish politics, there will never be another. This is how regional parties drive a wedge between different parts of the UK.

Last edited 1 year ago by Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 year ago

There have been two Irish born British Prime Ministers, but none for nearly 200 years. For as long as Northern Ireland returns MPs from regional parties only, it can never have a locally elected minister. Within the past three decades there has been a Scottish Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer (2), Foreign Secretary (2), Home Secretary, Defence Secretary (4), and President of the Board of Trade (2). For as long as the SNP dominate Scottish politics, there will never be another. This is how regional parties drive a wedge between different parts of the UK.

Last edited 1 year ago by Stephen Walsh
j watson
j watson
1 year ago

Mainland Brits won’t be arbiter of whether reunification happens or not. One suspects that the underlying theme for decades in mainland attitudes has been that the Irish and the Northern Irish can decide and ‘mainlanders’ largely agnostic. But please could the Irish debate and decide with civility and we’ll help where we can etc.
One suspects though that a sensible protocol mk2 compromise will leave the North with the potential best of both worlds and things will settle down. Let’s hope so.

j watson
j watson
1 year ago

Mainland Brits won’t be arbiter of whether reunification happens or not. One suspects that the underlying theme for decades in mainland attitudes has been that the Irish and the Northern Irish can decide and ‘mainlanders’ largely agnostic. But please could the Irish debate and decide with civility and we’ll help where we can etc.
One suspects though that a sensible protocol mk2 compromise will leave the North with the potential best of both worlds and things will settle down. Let’s hope so.

Tony Price
Tony Price
1 year ago

I’ve only been to Northern Ireland once, about 5 years ago to play golf, since you ask. Every ‘protestant’ I spoke to said they didn’t really care whether they were part of Ireland or the UK, except that the UK has an NHS whereas Ireland doesn’t – all they wanted was a fair and competent government, especially since the referenda on abortion and gay marriage had kicked the church into touch. So sort that out and unite Ireland asap, please! Of course the Irish government, whatever they say, don’t really want unification because Ulster is so poor, but they can’t say that and Germany sucked it up so they should as well. Go on, do us all a favour and get on with it!

D Walsh
D Walsh
1 year ago
Reply to  Tony Price

Fianna Gael don’t want a united Ireland, Sinn Fein still do. it looks like SF will win the next election

David McKee
David McKee
1 year ago
Reply to  Tony Price

It was the Republic, not Northern Ireland, that had referenda on abortion and gay marriage.
Northern Ireland, despite decades of terrorist-inspired stagnation, still has a higher standard of living than the Republic. GDP per capita numbers are very unreliable for Ireland. As to why, Google ‘Leprechaun economics.’
The Republic is uninterested in Northern Ireland because of the much higher (and, for Dublin, unaffordable) social spending – much of it on healthcare.
Apart from that, Mr. Price’s comment is perfectly accurate.

MĂŽnica
MĂŽnica
1 year ago
Reply to  David McKee

“Northern Ireland, despite decades of terrorist-inspired stagnation, still has a higher standard of living than the Republic.”

I’d like to see convincing evidence of that.

Tony Price
Tony Price
1 year ago
Reply to  David McKee

I know the referenda were in the Republic – what I meant was that while the South was dominated by the Church it was understandable that the North would have nothing to do with it, but now that link has been broken and a, possibly the, major barrier to unification has been torn down.

David McKee
David McKee
1 year ago
Reply to  Tony Price

Mr. Price seems to have a mindset which thinks that it is ‘natural’ for an island to be a single political entity. It’s not a mindset the SNP would share, for obvious reasons!
It’s not even true. There are islands around the world which have two or more political entities on them. Indeed, the East Timorese objected very strongly to unification with Indonesia.
Rather than seeing NI/RoI unification as ‘natural’, it might be better to see it as one option, the others being the status quo and UK/RoI unification.

David McKee
David McKee
1 year ago
Reply to  Tony Price

Mr. Price seems to have a mindset which thinks that it is ‘natural’ for an island to be a single political entity. It’s not a mindset the SNP would share, for obvious reasons!
It’s not even true. There are islands around the world which have two or more political entities on them. Indeed, the East Timorese objected very strongly to unification with Indonesia.
Rather than seeing NI/RoI unification as ‘natural’, it might be better to see it as one option, the others being the status quo and UK/RoI unification.

MĂŽnica
MĂŽnica
1 year ago
Reply to  David McKee

“Northern Ireland, despite decades of terrorist-inspired stagnation, still has a higher standard of living than the Republic.”

I’d like to see convincing evidence of that.

Tony Price
Tony Price
1 year ago
Reply to  David McKee

I know the referenda were in the Republic – what I meant was that while the South was dominated by the Church it was understandable that the North would have nothing to do with it, but now that link has been broken and a, possibly the, major barrier to unification has been torn down.

D Walsh
D Walsh
1 year ago
Reply to  Tony Price

Fianna Gael don’t want a united Ireland, Sinn Fein still do. it looks like SF will win the next election

David McKee
David McKee
1 year ago
Reply to  Tony Price

It was the Republic, not Northern Ireland, that had referenda on abortion and gay marriage.
Northern Ireland, despite decades of terrorist-inspired stagnation, still has a higher standard of living than the Republic. GDP per capita numbers are very unreliable for Ireland. As to why, Google ‘Leprechaun economics.’
The Republic is uninterested in Northern Ireland because of the much higher (and, for Dublin, unaffordable) social spending – much of it on healthcare.
Apart from that, Mr. Price’s comment is perfectly accurate.

Tony Price
Tony Price
1 year ago

I’ve only been to Northern Ireland once, about 5 years ago to play golf, since you ask. Every ‘protestant’ I spoke to said they didn’t really care whether they were part of Ireland or the UK, except that the UK has an NHS whereas Ireland doesn’t – all they wanted was a fair and competent government, especially since the referenda on abortion and gay marriage had kicked the church into touch. So sort that out and unite Ireland asap, please! Of course the Irish government, whatever they say, don’t really want unification because Ulster is so poor, but they can’t say that and Germany sucked it up so they should as well. Go on, do us all a favour and get on with it!

Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago

I doubt if many mainland British citizens have thoughts about Northern Ireland. It has not been in the headlines much, certainly not as much as Scotland. Thoughts are triggered by something happening, not by something not happening.

I see myself as widely read but I studiously avoid any articles or books on Northern Ireland because everything is too extreme, too full of hate. I don’t think you can comment unless you live there but then your comments must be biased by your own individual history.

Way back in the 1980s I sat next to a journalist on a flight to Germany. He was the NI reporter for The Frankfurter Allgemeine. He said that NI was just a disaster area – no logic, no right or wrong, no real politics – just an area full of pointless hatred.

David McKee
David McKee
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

With ‘analysis’ like that, the reporter must have had fun with the Balkans, the following decade!

Stevie K
Stevie K
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

He was right, but that phenomenon is the primitive tribal politics people are inclined fall back on with the greatest of ease.
The most dangerous human condition of all is organised and institutionalised resentment.

David McKee
David McKee
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

With ‘analysis’ like that, the reporter must have had fun with the Balkans, the following decade!

Stevie K
Stevie K
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris W

He was right, but that phenomenon is the primitive tribal politics people are inclined fall back on with the greatest of ease.
The most dangerous human condition of all is organised and institutionalised resentment.

Chris W
Chris W
1 year ago

I doubt if many mainland British citizens have thoughts about Northern Ireland. It has not been in the headlines much, certainly not as much as Scotland. Thoughts are triggered by something happening, not by something not happening.

I see myself as widely read but I studiously avoid any articles or books on Northern Ireland because everything is too extreme, too full of hate. I don’t think you can comment unless you live there but then your comments must be biased by your own individual history.

Way back in the 1980s I sat next to a journalist on a flight to Germany. He was the NI reporter for The Frankfurter Allgemeine. He said that NI was just a disaster area – no logic, no right or wrong, no real politics – just an area full of pointless hatred.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
1 year ago

Is it Unherd’s Survey Commentary day today?