St Patrick’s Day poll: Northern Ireland split over its future

A new St Patrick's Day poll has found that views on whether Northern Ireland will still be part of the UK by its centenary in 2021 are sharply divided.

A new poll, commissioned by the Belfast Telegraph and published on the eve of St Patrick’s Day, has found that views on whether Northern Ireland will still be part of the UK by its centenary in 2021 are sharply divided. As part of tomorrow’s celebrations, the first and deputy first ministers, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, have travelled to the United States to discuss potential new investment in the country.

Among the poll’s main findings are:

42% believe that Northern Ireland will be part of the UK by 2021, the same proportion who believe it will be part of a united Ireland by the same time;

• 42% of respondents describe themselves as Irish compared with 39% who call themselves British;

• 18% describe themselves as “Northern Irish”, a figure which increases to 24% when questioning just Protestants;

• If a referendum on a united Ireland were to be held today, 55% of respondents would vote for Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, against 36% who would prefer the north and south to unite. However, 26% of the Catholics questioned would want Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, compared with 6% of Protestants who believe in a united Ireland; and

• 51% of respondents, across all sections of the community reported that difficulties faced by the Irish Economy make a united Ireland less likely.

The last referendum to be held on Irish Unity, in 1973, found that 98.9% of people favoured Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK, though nationalists boycotted the poll.

The calls could prove a catalyst for a renewed bout of calls for a referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. In 2002, the then Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, told his annual party conference that a vote on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future could lay the issue to bed for a generation. Similarly, in 2008, Sinn Fein’s regional development minister Conor Murphy called for a vote by 2016.

Speaking ahead of his St Patrick’s Day visit to the US, McGuinness said:

“I have no doubt that, as with previous trips, this trip will lead to investment and the creation of jobs in the future.”

The trip and opportunities available reflect the realities of Gordon Brown’s assertion last month that a deal on devolving policing and justice powers would provide the stability businesses need to invest in Northern Ireland and create much needed jobs. With significant investment now a very real possibility, it raises still more questions over the decision last week by the Ulster Unionists to be the only party at Stormont to vote against transferring policing and justice powers to Northern Ireland, a strong signal of a normalisation of the nation’s politics.

What is more, the UUP’s sole MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, who last month confirmed she would not seek re-selection in protest at her party’s electoral pact with the Conservatives, made a clear side swipe at her party’s position on policing and justice; speaking to the BBC, she said:

The real enemies are not fellow unionists in the DUP, those are not our enemies, in fact Sinn Fein is not our enemy. The enemies in this community are dissident republicans who if they had their way would continue to wreak havoc across Northern Ireland. I wanted all of the parties in the Executive to stand shoulder to shoulder in the face of dissident terrorism and say we have had enough, we are going forward together.”

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