Lord Ashcroft: My Northern Ireland polling shows a swing to the Union. But nationalists feel events are heading their way.

13 Dec

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

Two years ago, my polling found a wafer-thin majority among Northern Ireland’s voters for unification with the Republic. My latest research, published today, shows a clear swing back towards remaining in the United Kingdom – an echo of the fall in support in recent months for Scottish independence.

But as I also found in my survey of over 3,000 voters and focus group discussions throughout the province, it is the nationalists who feel things are heading their way.

Unification, or the Union?

Asked how they would vote in a referendum or “border poll” tomorrow, 49 per cent said they would vote to stay in the UK, 41 per cent said they would choose a united Ireland, and one in ten said they were undecided: a majority of 54 per cent to 46 per cent for the Union among those voting.

While more than 19 out of 20 DUP and Sinn Féin voters backed the UK and unification respectively, SDLP ones backed a united Ireland by 56 per cent to 12 per cent, with nearly one in three saying they didn’t know.

Four in ten Alliance voters were undecided, with the remainder backing Irish unification by 35 per cent to 25 per cent. Support for a united Ireland declined sharply with age: 71 per cent of those aged 18 to 24 said they would choose unification with the Republic.

More than a quarter (27 per cent) of voters said they had changed their mind as to whether Northern Ireland should stay in the UK, including 16 per cent saying they had done so more than once. More than three in 10 women, 38 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 71 per cent of those who described themselves as neutral on the constitution said they had changed their mind at least once. Protestants (86 per cent) were more likely than Catholics (64 per cent) to say they had never changed their view on the matter.

What would the result be tomorrow – and in 10 years?

More than 6 in 10 (63 per cent) said they thought Northern Ireland would vote to stay in the UK in a referendum tomorrow – but by 51 per cent to 34 per cent, they thought a border poll in ten years’ time would produce a majority for a united Ireland.

While nine in ten unionists thought voters would choose the UK in an immediate border poll, only 64 per cent thought this would be the outcome a decade from now. More than three quarters of SDLP voters and 95 per cent of Sinn Féin supporters said they thought a referendum in 10 years would result in a united Ireland.

The longer view

Looking at the longer term, just over half (52 per cent) of all voters said they expected Northern Ireland still to be part of the UK in ten years’ time. However, only 36 per cent thought this would still be the case in 20 years, and only 25 per cent in 50 years.

While nationalists overwhelmingly expected Northern Ireland to be out of the UK within 20 years, two thirds (67 per cent) of unionists thought they would still be part of the Union at that stage. However, fewer than half (47 per cent) of unionists thought the status quo would still prevail in 50 years; 23 per cent said they thought Ulster would have left by then, and 30 per cent said they didn’t know.

What would be different in a united Ireland?

Voters as a whole were more likely to think that food and energy prices, housing costs, tax rates and unemployment (but also business investment) would be higher in a united Ireland than that they would be lower. Public spending and welfare benefits were thought more likely to be lower than higher.


By a small margin, voters thought equality and “parity of esteem” for different communities would be better in a united Ireland rather than worse – though 78 per cent of unionists thought the opposite. Overall, more thought the standard of living for most people was more likely to be worse in a united Ireland than better.

In focus group discussions, it was clear that these considerations weighed heavily with many voters. Those who liked the idea of Irish unity in principle often mentioned the cost of living and healthcare charges as balancing factors.

What do Westminster and Dublin want?

Northern Ireland voters were more likely to think the Westminster government would like to see the province leave the UK than that it would prefer it to stay. Only just over one in ten (11 per cent), and only just over half (56 per cent) of unionists, thought Westminster very much wanted to keep Ulster in the Union. A quarter thought the UK government didn’t mind either way, while more than four in ten thought it would prefer (26 per cent) or very much wanted (16 per cent) for Northern Ireland to leave.

In our focus groups, voters on all sides said they thought Northern Ireland was an “inconvenience” or an “afterthought” for the rest of the UK. The “levelling up” agenda seemed to apply to the north of England, rather than anywhere further afield.

At the same time, only just over half (52 per cent) of Northern Ireland voters thought the Irish government in Dublin would either prefer (38 per cent) or very much wanted (14 per cent) for Ulster to join the Republic in a united Ireland. Two thirds of nationalists thought Dublin would like to see a united Ireland, compared to just under half (46 per cent) of unionists.

Brexit and the Protocol

A clear majority (63 per cent, including 19 per cent of those who had voted Leave) said they thought leaving the EU had been the wrong decision as far as Northern Ireland was concerned. Two thirds of unionists thought it had been the right decision, while 95 per cent of nationalists thought it had been a mistake.

Nearly nine in ten voters (88 per cent) thought Brexit had been at least partly to blame for shortages of food and other goods in Northern Ireland shops; 62 per cent said it had been a major factor.

Unionists, however, were more likely to blame the pandemic and (especially) the Northern Ireland Protocol. Nearly eight in 10 (78 per cent) of them, including 89 per cent of 2017 DUP voters, said they thought the Protocol had been a major cause of shortages, compared to 38 per cent of unionists who said the same of Brexit more generally.

One in three voters – including 66 per cent of unionists, 83 per cent of 2017 DUP voters and 96 per cent of those saying they are likely to vote for Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) at the next Assembly election – said they thought the Protocol was wrong in principle and should be scrapped. A further nine per cent said the Protocol as it stands was too much of a burden and needed serious reform.

Another 36 per cent, including two thirds of Alliance voters and a quarter of UUP voters, said they thought the Protocol would be acceptable with some adjustments. Just over one in five (21 per cent) of Northern Ireland voters overall, including a majority (56 per cent) of those who voted for Sinn Féin in 2017, said they thought there were no problems with the Protocol.

Parties, leaders, and the next Assembly elections

Asked how positive or negative they felt about Northern Ireland’s political leaders, voters as a whole gave the highest scores to Doug Beattie of the UUP, Naomi Long of the Alliance Party, and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood.

Those who voted for the DUP in the 2017 Assembly elections rated the TUV leader, Jim Allister, higher than the DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, and the First Minister, Paul Givan – as did voters as a whole. Many in our focus groups lamented what they regarded as the lack of clear leadership at Stormont, especially with the roles of First Minister and DUP leader being held by different people.

Asked how likely they were to vote for each party at the next Assembly elections, DUP voters were the least likely to say would stick with their 2017 party.

Taking those who rated their chances of voting for a particular party at 90/100 or above, we find Sinn Féin ahead on 25 per cent with the DUP on 16 per cent, the Alliance on 14 per cent, TUV on 12 per cent and the UUP and SDLP each on 10 per cent. In our focus groups, voters on all sides felt there was a very good chance of Sinn Féin becoming the largest party and winning the First Minister post in 2022.

The full report, Ulster and the Union: the view from the North is available for free at LordAshcroftPolls.com.

Henry Hill: Gove’s challenge – what if the Protocol ends up threatening the peace in Northern Ireland?

11 Feb

The Government’s war of words with the European Union over the Northern Ireland Protocol shows no sign of abating. Indeed, if anything it looks set to get more serious.

According to the FT, the bloc has fired a ‘warning shot’ over ‘shortcomings’ in the UK’s enforcement of the new border regime. It has also apparently rejected demands for ‘flexibility’ in enforcing some of the provisions, which has seen diggers refused entry to the Province with British soil on their tracks.

As Michael Gove prepares to meet his Brussels counterpart, Maros Sefcovic, today to discuss the problem, the Guardian reports that the latter’s stance is that London must enforce the Protocol in full before any requests for leniency will be considered.

This comes as unionist and loyalist anger at the new arrangements continues to mount. Although checks at Ulster’s ports have resumed following threats of violence, political pressure on the major unionist parties continues to mount after a surge in support for the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), a hardline party led by Jim Allister, a former Democratic Unionist MLA.

Meanwhile a petition against the Protocol set up by the DUP has passed the 100,000 signatures needed to trigger consideration in Parliament, and the Orange Order has called for it to be scrapped.

But opposition isn’t confined to the traditional hardliners. David Trimble, the ex-Ulster Unionist leader and former First Minister who won the Nobel Prize as co-architect of the Belfast Agreement, has said that “the astonishing and disturbing fact is that the Withdrawal Agreement and, in particular, the Protocol clearly rips the Good Friday Agreement apart.” He fleshes out his case thus:

“Since, under the protocol, the laws governing 60 per cent of economic activity in Northern Ireland would no longer be made at Westminster or by the devolved Assembly, but by an outside law-making body, the EU, and those laws would be subject to interpretation by a non-UK court, clearly the constitutional position of Northern Ireland would be changed without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland as required by the Good Friday Agreement.”

This touches on a concern that both Lee Reynolds and myself have previously raised on this site, namely the unequal treatment of unionist versus nationalist entitlements under the Agreement. The latter are interpreted very broadly as an entitlement to the pre-Brexit status quo, whilst the former’s safeguards on Ulster’s constitutional status are defined as tightly as possible around top-level sovereignty.

Perhaps the breadth of this criticism explains the increasing stridency of the DUP response. Have initially seemed prepared to try and make the Protocol work, the party is now coming under heavy fire for refusing to take part in a meeting of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, according to the News Letter.

Such a strategy of non-engagement could have serious consequences, as the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland require the active participation of both sides to function. That’s why Sinn Fein was able to collapse Stormont the last time – and there is nothing to bar the DUP from doing the same.

Predictably, anger is focused on the of the issues raised by Unionist MPs when they tried to quiz Michael Gove on the arrangements in Parliament. At the time, we highlighted his evasive answer to the question of whether or not the ‘grace period’ for food products was meant to buy time to negotiate a deal to protect mainland supply lines to Northern Irish businesses, or to give those businesses time to find new EU suppliers. It seems to have been the latter.

All this puts the Government in a difficult position. Unionist anger at the Protocol – both its outcomes and its underlying assumptions – is justified, and has been building for years. But ultimately Boris Johnson did sign up to it, shamelessly abandoning his promises to Ulster in the process. Despite its self-inflicted wound over Article 16 (which does make it easier for London to activate it, although Gove seems disinclined to do so), the EU gets what it wants by doing nothing and has little incentive to compromise.

But peace in Northern Ireland – which the bloc has always claimed was its top priority – is a dance with two partners. Not only are mainstream unionists incensed, but loyalist paramilitaries have just spent several years watching people pray in aid of the threat of republican violence to justify ruling out checks on the land border. It would be very bad if London and Brussels allowed the impression to form that the prizes will go to those who make life the most difficult – or dangerous.