There are few concepts in Ireland that evoke an emotional response from a population known for their propensity to be “easy going”, but one that’s sure to get some kind of reaction is the notion of a United Ireland.
When it comes to the issue of a united Ireland, everyone and their dog seems to have an opinion or three.
These opinions vary depending on who you’re talking to, how old they are, what part of the country they’re from and very often what family they come from.
The very question of whether there should be a 32 county Ireland has resulted in fighting, death, political movements, political careers and is often the deciding factor on how people vote on this island, north and south and south of the border, although more so in the North.
It’s undeniable that since Britain voted to leave the European Union almost four years ago, this issue has made its way into the public political discussion in a way it hadn’t been in a long time.
This can partly be attributed to the fact that Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. It’s clear Brexit has thrown gasoline on the quenched fire that was the idea of a United Ireland.
I’d argue that immediately before the Brexit referendum Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom was as safe and secure as ever.
In the 2015 British general election, the combined Unionist vote (DUP, UUP & TUV) held up at 44% which was nearly the exact same as what they collectively achieved in the previous election in 2010.
Crucially, once you include the Eurosceptic UKIP party and Northern Irish Conservative party who both actively support Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom, this number jumps to 47.9%.
On the opposite end of the spectrum the combined Nationalist Vote (Sinn Féin & SDLP) performed poorly, only achieving a 38.4% vote share. This was a decrease of 3.6% from 2010.
The gap between the combined Unionist vote and combined Nationalist vote stood at nearly 10%. In addition to this, out of the 18 Northern Irish Westminster seats 11 of those were filled by Unionists while only 7 were filled by Nationalists.
To make matters worse for Nationalists, the Fermanagh South Tyrone seat held by Sinn Féin was lost to the Ulster Unionist Party.
What was even more worrying for Nationalism in 2015 was Sinn Féin’s performance in the Nationalist heartland of West Belfast.
Although Sinn Féin’s Paul Maskey was comfortably returned as MP, the Sinn Féin vote share in the constituency was reduced from 70.6% in the 2011 by-election to 54.2%. This was a reduction of nearly 17% of the Sinn Féin vote share.
The 2015 Westminster election was undoubtedly a high point for Unionism.
This was profoundly illustrated during a Prime Time Special that year entitled “Ireland’s Call”. During the show, it was revealed that merely 13% of people in Northern Ireland wanted a United Ireland.
A greater number of people (24%) favoured direct rule from the British Government.
The findings came as a result of a cross border survey conducted by Behaviour & Attitudes over a period of two weeks in October 2015.
Mere months before the Brexit Referendum Northern Ireland went to the polls again for the 2016 Northern Ireland Assembly elections. This was yet another poor performance for Nationalism.
The Unionist vote once again held up. The combined first preference Unionist vote share was 46.1%. The addition of the Northern Ireland conservatives and UKIP brought this vote share to 48% which is nearly the exact vote percentage Unionism obtained in 2015.
Nationalism continued its downward spiral in this election as the combined vote share amounted to 36% which was down over 2%.
To make matters worse the SDLP returned 2 less seats to the assembly and Sinn Féin returned one less seat while both the UUP and DUP managed to return the exact same amount of seats they had obtained five years previously.
The combined number of Unionist seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly amounted to 55 seats compared to 40 seats held by Nationalists.
The difference between the combined Nationalist and Unionist vote now stood at 12%.
The infamous West Belfast constituency once again acted as a portrait showing Nationalism’s struggles.
The reliable nationalist epicentre voted in droves for People Before Profit’s Gerry Carroll who topped the poll with an impressive 8,299 votes.
The socialist People Before Profit party obtained 22.9% of the first preference vote share.
The last party to obtain this vote share in West Belfast apart from Sinn Féin was the SDLP in 1998.
Although People Before Profit does not designate itself as a Nationalist party it’s vote primarily comes from traditional Nationalist areas.
What their growth seemed to show us was that there was a change in priority for a substantial proportion of traditional Nationalist voters.
Although Sinn Féin was still by far the biggest party in West Belfast with a 54.5% vote share, it was a big decline of nearly 17% from the 2011 assembly election.
They had also gone from 5 MLAs in West Belfast to 4.
It was also very telling that the Foyle Constituency (Derry City) had returned one less Nationalist MLA as the SDLP lost out to People Before Profit’s Eamonn McCann.
The 2016 Assembly Election made it clear that the constitutional question of a United Ireland was starting to be put on the back burner as far as the Nationalist electorate were concerned.
The electorate was becoming increasingly more concerned with social issues such as health and housing.
The fact these issues were leading people to not vote on constitutional lines showed how a period of normalisation was beginning to take place.
There was very little immediate appetite for a United Ireland and the Nationalist turnout was lowering with each election.
The disappointing Nationalist result had come off the back of the centenary of the 1916 rising which was hoped to galvanise the nationalist electorate.
In contrast to this, it was the Unionist vote which had been holding up and increasing in certain areas which showed us the status quo was sailing smoothly in Northern Ireland.
In June 2016 a political tsunami took place which engulfed the status quo in Northern Ireland.
This was the UK’s vote to leave the European Union.
Crucially, Northern Ireland had voted to remain in the EU by 55% to 44%.
A total of 11 of the North’s constituencies voted to remain while 7 voted to leave.
This provided the surge of adrenaline that Nationalism needed to get a United Ireland back on the agenda.
Suddenly, the idea of a United Ireland was now equipped with a strong economic argument.
A United Ireland could now be seen as the saviour Northern Ireland needs to remain in the European Union and retain economic stability.
If there were early signs of Nationalism beginning to flat line, Brexit was the defibrillator which revived it wholeheartedly.
Within a few hours of the result of the Brexit vote, Sinn Féin had already called for a border poll on Irish Unity.
The possibility of Brexit leading to a hard border on the island of Ireland between Northern Ireland and the Republic could be seen as a logical possibility.
This possibility would spook a large number of Nationalists who had seemed to become content with the status quo in Northern Ireland.
In March 2017 the voters in Northern Ireland went to the polls for the first time since the Brexit referendum.
This Assembly election occurred as a result of the Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigning in protest due to the RHI scandal accompanied by Arlene Foster’s refusal to down stand pending a public inquiry.
This election was a massive success for Sinn Féin who nearly obtained an increase of 4% in their first preference vote share.
Furthermore Sinn Féin came within .2% of the DUP in terms of first preference votes.
Sinn Féin’s revival could be seen in it’s fortress of West Belfast where Orlaithi Flynn topped the poll followed by Alex Maskey, Fra McCann and Pat Sheehan respectively.
Sinn Féin’s first preference vote share increased by over 7%.
This was in contrast to People Before Profit who’s vote share decreased by 8%.
There was a clear swing in preference from People Before Profit to the two main Nationlalist parties in the constituency.
The combined Nationalist vote share had increased to 40% (41% if you add People Before Profit) while the combined Unionist vote share shrunk to 44.8% which was a decrease of almost 4% from the previous year.
In what was a historic election the Unionists were no longer the majority in Stormont.
The number of Unionist seats in the assembly now stood at 39 while the number of Nationalist seats in the assembly also amounted to 39.
The Legislative Assembly which was once a bastion of the Unionist majority was now unrecognisable.
A few months later, the North’s electorate were back to the polls to vote in the 2017 Westminster General Election.
The snap election was called by Theresa May and the beneficiaries were Sinn Féin and the DUP.
The fact there was more movement to the staunchest elements of Nationalism and Unionism to an extent not seen before illustrated how the electorate was now thinking along constitutional lines now more than ever.
The DUP returned 10 seats which was an increase of 2 while Sinn Féin gained 3 seats returning 7 in total.
The combined Unionist vote share stood at 47.2% while the Combined Nationalist vote share was at nearly 42%.
Although the Unionist vote share was up from the Assembly election a few months prior, it was still down slightly from its 2016 high.
The combined Nationalist share of the vote had somewhat increased (41.1%) from the Assembly election (39.8%) while the Unionist Fermanagh South Tyrone Seat had returned to Sinn Féin.
In addition, Sinn Féin had knocked the SDLP off their perch in the Foyle constituency while also defeating them in South Down.
The decline of the moderate nationalist party in favour of Sinn Féin showed how much of a priority a United Ireland was becoming from an increasingly energised Nationalist electorate.
Nationalism had obtained it’s highest vote percentage since 2011 and finally had some momentum behind it.
In West Belfast Sinn Féin enjoyed a 12.5% increase in their vote share in the constituency while People Before Profit’s Gerry Carroll was hammered with a decrease in 9% of the vote share.
In December 2017 a poll by the Belfast based polling and market research company LucidTalk showed for the first time ever that a majority of people in Northern Ireland were in favour of a United Ireland (48% to 45% with 7% undecided).
It is critical to note that in this poll the respondents were asked about their preference for a United Ireland in the specific event of a ‘hard brexit’.
Unionism was dealt a devastating blow last December when the most recent Westminster Election returned more Nationalist than Unionist seats for the first time ever.
Nationalism obtained 9 seats while Unionism attained 8 seats.
Three out of four of the Belfast seats now belong to Nationalist parties.
North Belfast, which had been a safe Unionist since 1905 is now in the hands of Sinn Féin.
In addition, the combined Unionist vote share was a historic low of 43.1%.
It must be acknowledged that the combined Nationalist vote was lower at 38.9%.
Nationalism once again failed to break the glass ceiling and amass a higher vote percentage than Unionism.
Furthermore, to add to this complication Nationalism’s vote percentage was down compared to 2017.
This can be attributed to the rise of the Alliance party.
The cross community party who is agnostic on the question of the Union reached a breakthrough in the 2019 local elections winning a substantial amount of seats.
This was followed up by Naomi Long winning a seat in the European Parliament at the expense of the Ulster Unionist Party.
The Alliance Party completed its run of good results with a stellar performance in the 2019 Westminster Election.
They managed to increase their first preference vote share by 8.8%.
This occurred while both the DUP and Sinn Féin parties simultaneously decreased in their vote share.
There are many possible explanations for this. One theory is that despite Brexit, there is a sizable increase in those not concerned about the constitutional question first and foremost.
It can be reasonably inferred that voters are more concerned with issues on the ground rather than whether the country is in the UK or not.
This could be good for Unionism in the long run as a sizeable proportion of people voting this way reinforces the status quo of the state of Northern Ireland.
The more people are voting on issues which pertain to Northern Ireland locally, the less transfixed they are on the question of a United Ireland.
A key thing to consider is the Alliance Party draws more of its votes from the Unionist Community than the Nationalist Community.
This can be seen at local council level where the vast majority of their seats come from the Unionist heartlands to the East of the Bann.
This could be good news for Nationalism if a higher proportion of Unionists are switching to Alliance.
It shows us that some Unionists may be getting more flexible to the idea of a United Ireland.
In a straight 50%+1 Referendum these margins may be crucial.
All in all, although Nationalism has made some strides in the last few years on the back of Brexit there are still ailments affecting the movement for a United Ireland.
Among these is the fact that despite changes in demographics, Nationalism has never obtained a higher vote share than Unionism.
Furthermore the rise of People Before Profit in traditional Nationalist heartlands indicates there is a growing demand for immediate social issues to be addressed such as deprivation and health care.
It’s important to note that although Sinn Féin is also left-wing, a switch in a sizeable number of votes from Sinn Féin to People Before Profit indicates a small shift away from focus on the constitutional question.
It must be underlined that any shift away from the constitutional question by a decent proportion of the Nationalist electorate for a sustained period of time could be detrimental to the prospect of a United Ireland.
What Unionism needed was consistency and stability accompanied by a long term normalisation plan that would quietly suffocate Nationalism into obscurity.
#In 2015 it seemed like the beginning of the normalisation after a period of stability as Unionism halted the growing trend of Nationalism.
It seems very clear that Brexit has undone this progress for Unionism and as a result, Nationalism has momentum like never before.
As we have seen in recent years, when it comes to politics momentum is everything.
If there is anything to be certain off it’s that we are due more instability.
The ongoing Covid-19 crisis along with Brexit has the potential to cause untold instability which may be good for Nationalism.
If Scotland leaves the Union in the next five years where does that leave Northern Ireland?
Will the Covid-19 crisis expose failings in the NHS compared to the Republic of Ireland?
Will a soft Brexit save the Union?
Will there even be a European Union after this crisis?
There are many questions that need answering.
One thing is for sure, until Nationalism gains a higher vote percentage than Unionism a border poll will be a difficult sell while the Conservative government is in power in Westminster.