Queen s
Queen's University Belfast

Survey Find Rising Support in North for Unity

The 2021 results of Northern Ireland’s leading social attitudes survey, released Thursday, show growing support for Irish unity.

The survey, a joint initiative between Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, shows rising support for Irish unification, nationalist identification, and for the NI Protocol compared to 2020. 

The NI Life & Times (NILT) Survey shows 48 percent support for Northern Ireland remaining in the Union.

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"But this has been declining since 2016," said a release. 

The survey found that Unionist and nationalist identities have become stronger, and the proportion of those who are "neither" unionist nor nationalist has decreased since 2018.  

The results are analyzed in a report: "Political attitudes in NI after Brexit and under the Protocol," co-authored by Professor Katy Hayward, Dr Milena Komarova and Ben Rosher of Queen’s. 

The key points are: The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is seen as the best basis for governing Northern Ireland, with only 6 percent expressing absolute opposition to it. 

There has been an increase in reporting of nationalist identities (from 19 percent in 2020 to 26 per cent in 2021). 

Nearly half of respondents (48 percent) believe that the long-term policy for Northern Ireland should be to remain part of the UK (down from 54 per cent in 2020).  

One third (34 percent) state they would vote for a united Ireland tomorrow. 

63 percent of respondents believe that a united Ireland is more likely after Brexit (a rise of five percentage points on 2020).  

The plurality of unionists (47 percent) and majority of nationalists (83 percent) and those who are "neither" unionist nor nationalist (67 per ent) believe that this is the case.  

There has been a sharp rise in unionists saying Brexit has made them less in favor of a united Ireland – from 11 percent in 2019 to 32 percent in 2021. 

The proportion who think the Protocol is "on balance a good thing" has more than doubled to 33 percent (15 percent in 2020). 33 percent think it a "mixed bag" while 21 percent think it "on balance a bad thing."  

Different identity groups have different opinions on the Protocol. The plurality of unionists think it on balance bad for NI (44 percent) although 40 per cent think it "a mixed bag." The plurality of "neithers" think it is "a mixed bag" (41 percent). A large majority of nationalists think that it is on balance good (69 per cent). 

"Contrary to the Legacy and Reconciliation Bill currently under consideration by the UK Parliament, only 29 per cent support an ending of Troubles-related investigations and prosecutions," the survey finds.

"There is majority support for progress in full implementation of the 1998 Agreement. 62 percent want to see a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland and 59 percent want to see the re-establishment of the Civic Forum.  

The survey finds that support for the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement remains strong in Northern Ireland (65 percent), with only six per cent wanting to see it gone altogether.  

In something of a boost for Alliance Party demands, 59 percent want to see key votes in the Assembly passed on the basis of a weighted majority (not necessarily with a cross-community requirement). Only 19 per cent support the current rules for the use of Petition of Concern to block legislation in the Assembly.  
An exclusively Irish (i.e., ‘Irish not British’) identity is now held by the largest proportion of the population (26 percent, up seven percentage points on 2020), compared to 21 percent holding an exclusively British (‘British not Irish’) identity (slightly lower than in 2020).  

Those who self-identify as "neither" unionist nor nationalist remain the largest group in Northern Ireland.

"However, the proportion of this group has shrunk since 2019, and now stands at 37 percent. There has also been a slight drop in the reporting of unionist identities (from 35 to 32 percent), and a significant increase in those holding nationalist identities (from 19 to 26 percent) compared to 2020. 

The proportion of respondents who believe the UK will exist in its current form in 20 years’ time is equal to that believing that there will be a united Ireland in the same timeframe (just under four in ten).  

A plurality of respondents (48 per cent) continues to believe that the long-term policy should be for Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK. This is six percentage points lower than in 2020. At the same time, support for a united Ireland as a long-term policy has increased by four percentage points (30 per cent). 

Awareness of, and support for, the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland has increased markedly since 2020. 65 percent claim knowledge of it. 37 percent of respondents feel that Brexit has made them more in favor of a united Ireland (73 percent of nationalists and 37 per cent of neithers). There has been a steep rise in the proportion of unionists saying that Brexit makes them less in favor of Irish unity (32 percent compared to 11 percent in 2019).  

Commenting on the report findings, Katy Hayward, Professor of Political Sociology Queen’s and Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe, said: “If the NI Assembly election of 5 May was a defining moment, it only compounded the political flux that has troubled Northern Ireland since the Brexit referendum.

"The NI Life and Times Survey offers a unique insight into how the local population is responding to the realisation that things won’t and can’t be the same again. The differing expectations and concerns reflected in this data will no doubt prove testing for our democratic institutions as well as for our politicians in the months and years to come.”