A majority of voters in Northern Ireland chose to Remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum. Moreover, like many issues in post-conflict Northern Ireland, the issue of Brexit maps onto the underlying ethno-national divide: most unionist voters supported Leave; by a larger margin, most nationalists supported Remain.
Two-and-a-half years later, it is worth recalling the referendum failed to engage people in Northern Ireland in the same way it mobilised voters in other parts of the UK. Turnout was just 63% – nine points lower than the UK average, and the lowest of any region. It was also lower than turnout levels in the subsequent ‘normal’ elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly (65% in March 2017) and Westminster (66% in June 2017). This relative disengagement was almost certainly linked to the marginal attention given to Northern Ireland or Irish issues during the campaign.
Since the referendum, the significance of these issues has become clearer. Within Northern Ireland, there has been growing anxiety at the prospect of physical infrastructure returning to the Irish border. Qualitative evidence from a deliberative forum suggests popular concerns are both practical and political:
“Say I want to walk the dog. I’m literally 10 minutes across the border. It would be a nightmare,” said a Catholic woman. Memories of a hard border during the Troubles are never far away. “There’s a lot of people living in Northern Ireland that could use that as another reason to start fighting and gather support as well I suppose … back to The Troubles again,” warned a Protestant woman.
Unionists, meanwhile, have become much more conscious of the potential consequences of Brexit for Northern Ireland’s relationship with Great Britain – particularly as the backstop now appears to be an inescapable feature of the withdrawal equation. Even if the backstop results in limited regulatory divergence between the two sides of the Irish Sea, some see it as a looming threat to Northern Ireland’s constitutional position:
“I don’t want Northern Ireland separated from the rest of the UK,” affirmed a Protestant Leave supporter, when asked about the prospect of greater East-West regulatory checks. People who take a different view nonetheless understand the psychological basis of such concerns. “I can see where they’re coming from,” empathised a Catholic Remainer.
Taking all of this together, we can observe four broad features in terms of public opinion in Northern Ireland since June 2016.
Firstly, there is growing support for the UK remaining in the EU. Excluding ‘don’t know’ responses, a cross-sectional survey we conducted in early 2018 found 69% would now support Remain. A majority of Protestants (56%) would still vote Leave, but this margin has narrowed from the 60-40% split in 2016. All available polling data confirms this trend: at least 60% of voters in Northern Ireland consistently say they would choose to stay in the EU.
Secondly, assuming that the UK does leave the EU, there is considerable backing for the softest possible exit on a UK-wide basis. A majority of supporters of all five of Northern Ireland’s main parties – unionist, nationalist and neither – would prefer to see the whole of the UK stay in the customs union and single market, compared to either the UK leaving both or Northern Ireland leaving on a different basis to the rest of the UK.
As Table 1 shows, this includes 58% of DUP supporters and 70% of Sinn Féin voters. It is rare to find such a broad popular consensus in Northern Ireland on such a salient issue. The limited polling evidence available does not suggest that the DUP is being punished for not throwing its weight behind a UK-wide soft exit; the broadly similar Brexit stances adopted by rival unionist parties have helped to insulate its position.
It should also be noted that these preferences for a soft exit are distinct from people’s reported voting behaviour in the 2016 referendum. For example, as Table 2 illustrates, the vast majority of DUP supporters voted to leave the EU. Yet most support remaining in the customs union and single market. There seems to be widespread recognition that a soft exit for the whole of the UK is currently the only way of leaving the EU without the need for new types of border arrangement, either on the island of Ireland or down the Irish Sea.
Thirdly, while recent polling finds that there is not necessarily much enthusiasm about the Withdrawal Agreement itself, many people support its key features. In a LucidTalk poll from December 2018, 54% of respondents agreed that business and farming organisations were correct to back the Agreement. Some 65% think that it would be a net benefit for Northern Ireland to remain closely aligned to the EU, even if the rest of the UK diverged. Respondents cited perceived economic advantage and the avoidance of a hard border with the Republic of Ireland as reasons for this. Unionists are much less convinced. A sizeable minority (44%) would rather leave the EU with no deal, compared to the options of either remaining in the EU or accepting the Withdrawal Agreement.
Paradoxically, and finally, this is the scenario that would apparently pose the greatest risk to Northern Ireland’s constitutional status. 55% of respondents say they would ‘probably’ or ‘certainly’ support a united Ireland in the event that the UK left without a deal, falling to 48% if the UK leaves on the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, and to just 29% if the UK remains in the EU.
Leaving the EU inevitably involves trade-offs. While it will be impossible to please everybody, there are clearly some paths that are more acceptable than others for the people of Northern Ireland. Aside from remaining in the EU altogether, the most preferred option is for an exit that avoids any new friction across these islands. Leaving without a deal or leaving with separate arrangements for Northern Ireland are likely to have more polarising effects on public opinion.