Northern Ireland news

Opinion Poll: Ross Wilson – Just who are the constitutional agnostics?

The survey asked what factors might help persuade people to support a united Ireland. Graphics:
Ross Wilson

The constitutional debate about the future of this island is often framed in black and white; unity or union, yes or no. While this may once have been the case, poll after poll reveals that there is another important group in the debate on Irish unity besides the Green and the Orange – the Grey.

The Others, the Neithers, the Constitutionally Agnostic – these men and women could play a crucial role in a future border poll, and will surely be a key target demographic for advocates of unity and union.

But who are these constitutional agnostics and what might persuade them to take a position in a border poll? Recent public opinion research commissioned by the Institute of Irish Studies-University of Liverpool sheds some light on these questions.

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Polling company SMR asked more than 1,000 people, between April 11-21, whether they would vote for a united Ireland tomorrow.  

More than one-third (36 per cent) said that they would vote for a united Ireland; 51 per cent said they would not vote for a united Ireland; and 13 per cent said they do not know or would not vote.

When asked whether they would vote for a united Ireland in 15-20 years’ time, the pro-unity vote rises to 40 per cent, the pro-union vote falls to 43 per cent, and the undecideds/non-voters rise to 17 per cent.

Let us call the category of ‘don’t knows’ and non-voters the constitutional agnostics: either they remain unconvinced of either side’s argument, or they do not believe strongly enough in them to cast a vote. 

So, who are these agnostics? By diving deeper into the data, we are able to construct something close to an agnostic profile.

Gender is perhaps what stands out the most. Women appear more open-minded (or less dogmatic) about the constitutional question than men, as two out of three agnostics are female. Beyond this, the majority of agnostics are aged 35-59, tend not to vote in elections, and are (unsurprisingly) most likely to identify as neither nationalist nor unionist. Almost half are Catholic.

To test what issues would matter most to constitutional agnostics in a border poll, the Institute of Irish Studies survey posed a range of different scenarios and asked whether these could tempt agnostics into taking a position in a border poll. The short answer is, yes, certain issues would indeed move some agnostics into a definitive position. 

Symbolic and cultural issues do not appear to matter that much to agnostics. Only 16 per cent said a new flag and national anthem in a united Ireland would convince them to vote for unity. A system of power-sharing government in Dublin carries a little more traction, with 38 per cent of agnostics saying this could convince them to support unity.  

As with most voting decisions, it is the pound (or the Euro) in the agnostic’s pocket which matters most – 44 per cent of agnostics say they would vote for unity if house prices and the cost of living situation were better in the south than in the north.

An effective NHS-style healthcare system in the Republic would be even more persuasive: the majority (52 per cent) of agnostics say they would vote for unity if such a service existed. A similar proportion of agnostics indicate they would vote for unity if there were greater investments in transport infrastructure in the event of Irish unity, and if their pension and social security benefits were unaffected. 

Agnostics, then, may not be that easy to persuade. Cultural issues, particularly the prospect of a new flag and national anthem, are often to the fore in debates about making Irish unity more appealing to the undecideds. The data above suggests the emphasis on these matters is probably misplaced.

These issues don’t seem to matter much to those who currently disagree with unification either: less than half of those who would vote against unification identified their national or religious identity as important to their decision. 

Even if changes to the flag and national anthem were agreeable to citizens in the Republic – research from Queen’s University suggests this would be difficult – is it likely to make or break a unity campaign in the north? Probably not.

Rather, for the agnostics, their view on unity versus union rests to a large extent on the state and security of their economic fortunes in an all-Ireland Republic.

For advocates of unity, that is a much more difficult challenge than changing the lyrics to Amhrán na bhFiann.

At the same time, the salience of economic issues in this debate is not necessarily an advantage to the pro-union camp. The north’s public services are crumbling, Tory-austerity budget cuts abound, and perpetual political stalemate wards off economic investment.

Meanwhile, the Irish economy grew by a massive 12 per cent last year, with an expected annual tax surplus of €20bn (£17.7bn) by 2026, making it the fastest growing economy in Europe.

Perhaps the agnostics are watching. 

:: Ross Wilson is a PhD student at the University of Liverpool's Institute of Irish Studies.