Irish unity moves up list of priorities but lags behind health, housing and economy

United Ireland growing in importance in South and among Northern Catholics

The 2023 ARINS/Irish Times survey presented respondents with eight policy aims. They were asked to identify which ones they thought were the most important facing the country over the next decade.

If they wished, respondents could pick up to four aims that they thought should be prioritised. Health, housing, economic growth, climate change, and recovering from the pandemic were included in the list. So were aims directly related to the debate on the constitutional future of the island: specifically, “achieving a united Ireland”, “preparing for a united Ireland” and “keeping Northern Ireland in the UK”.

Comparing this year’s responses to those given to the same question in last year’s survey allows us to assess whether change has occurred in the relative importance assigned by the public, North and South, to questions on constitutional futures.

There is a lot of stability across 2022 and 2023. Table 1 confirms that the same three policy aims – economic growth, health, and housing – are the top three in the South, the North, and among Northern Catholics and Protestants.

Poll Sat

Health and housing are joint top in the South, while health is prioritised to a greater extent than either housing or health in the North overall, including Northern Catholics and Protestants.

A slight majority of Southerners now prioritise “contributing to better management of climate change” while only a third do so in the North overall; among Northern Protestants, just a quarter do so.

Our survey registers a decline in the extent to which “recovering from the coronavirus pandemic” is prioritised in the South and among Northern Catholics.

There has, however, been a significant increase in the number of people who think priority should be given to issues relating to potential Irish unification, in the South and among Northern Catholics.

The proportion in the South prioritising “preparing for a united Ireland” has risen from 12 per cent to 20 per cent. Among Northern Catholics it has risen from 22 per cent to 31 per cent. Similarly, the percentage prioritising “achieving a united Ireland” has risen from 15 per cent to 22 per cent in the South, and from 21 per cent to 29 per cent among Northern Catholics.

When the two issues relating to a “united Ireland” are combined, almost two-fifths (37 per cent) of the public in the South prioritise either preparing for or achieving a united Ireland compared to one quarter who did so last year (24 per cent). Almost half of Northern Catholics (47 per cent) prioritise either preparing for or achieving a united Ireland in 2023, compared to slightly over one third last year (35 per cent).

Among Northern Protestants one of the “constitutional future” questions was chosen as a priority by a clear majority: 54 per cent prioritise keeping Northern Ireland in the UK, up from 49 per cent last year.

The overall pattern is straightforward. Material issues such as health, housing and the economy are still the dominant priorities but issues relating to sovereignty and the political future of the island have increased in importance compared to last year – on both sides of the border and, indeed, for traditional communities in Northern Ireland.

The biggest increases are driven by the distinct aims of “preparing for” and “achieving” a united Ireland, with slightly greater increases in the former than the latter. The data suggest an appreciation in the South and among Northern Catholics that Irish reunification will require a planned process, not just a desired outcome.

At the same time, most Northern Protestants seem to recognise that Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom is not an outcome that can be taken for granted.