Days since Brexit

Sinn Féin tapped into a demand for change on "specific domestic issues" in southern election

Sinn Féin leadership. Photo by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye.

Sinn Féin leadership. Photo by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye.

THE rise of Sinn Féin may cause some concern about the prospect of rising nationalism in Ireland.

Most European countries have experienced rising nationalism and rising left wing populism to varying degrees in the last five years.

This poll conducted for The Detail provides a useful examination of the nature of the rise of Sinn Féin and how it might relate to the issue of a united Ireland.

Firstly, the poll reveals how a tradition of constitutional nationalism continues south of the border. It is clear that support for the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement has not wilted since the referendum in 1998.

While that referendum passed by a margin of 94% to 6% in the Republic of Ireland (ROI), this poll reveals a margin of 97% to 3% (excluding 9% undecided).

This is quite remarkable support for such a complex agreement and perhaps is a function of sustained memory of the troubles which, juxtaposed with the rise of Sinn Féin, would seem counterintuitive.

What clarifies this is the continued support for peace on the island. In the poll, respondents were asked to rank from one to 10, 10 issues in order of importance.

Accordingly, the average ranking of those issues gives us an idea of which of these is the most important.

From that analysis we can reveal that ‘peaceful society’ has the highest average ranking of all issues and it is also the most important issue for the largest proportion of respondents with 22.6% identifying it as such.

Infographic by Chris Scott, The Detail.

Infographic by Chris Scott, The Detail.

The average ranking gives us further clues as to why this dichotomy has emerged. It is notable that domestic issues are considered to be much more important than issues pertaining to identity, nationalism and the conflict.

Free healthcare has the second highest average ranking and it is also the most important issue for 14.6% overall but for 21% of Sinn Féin supporters, the most of any other party.

It is clear that Sinn Féin were able to tap into a demand for change in relation to specific domestic issues. While 9.3% identified social housing provision as the most important, among Sinn Féin supporters this was 16%.

It is also of interest to speak about what ranks lowest, on average, such as the issues of identity and traditions and legacy issues relating to conflict/troubles. These issues were not to the fore of the campaign.

In terms of a united Ireland, there is broad recognition that Brexit has intensified the discussion. When asked, 83.4% believe this to be the case as opposed to 8.7%, who do not believe that Brexit has intensified the debate.

They also believe that Brexit has made a border poll more likely by a margin of 74.6% to 14.2%.

In relation to the issue at hand, a united Ireland, support remains strong. Support for Northern Ireland (NI) joining the south is preferred by 73.1% over 10.2% who favour NI remaining within the United Kingdom.

By almost identical margins the population support it as a pathway towards NI re-entering the European Union and the idea of an all-island Citizen’s Assembly to deliberate on changes to the constitution. This reflects the inclusive nature of political discourse in Ireland.

The most interesting findings relate to the desire to facilitate minority traditions. When considering the nature of this prospective new country 40.7% would prefer to see a federalised state with power bases in both Dublin and Belfast as opposed to a unitary state with a power base solely in Dublin, which has the support of 33.2%.

This is particularly pronounced among supporters of the Labour Party (by a margin of 50% to 26%), the Green Party (by a margin of 40% to 25%), and also supporters of Sinn Féin (by a margin of 44% to 36%).

It is undoubtedly the case that these issues are central to whether something like a united Ireland is desirable or even possible.

In terms of whether they believe a minority Protestant community would be respected and protected, where 0 meant 'minimum respect or protection' and 10 meant 'maximum respect or protection' the average score was 6.4.

Respondents were asked whether they believed all outstanding legacy issues, such as unsolved conflict/troubles-related deaths, outstanding court cases and inquests, should be resolved before a referendum takes place, left in the past or dealt with under a new structure in a new Ireland.

In terms of these legacy issues, 70.3% believed they should be resolved while 21.5% believe they should be left in the past.

And of those that stated they should be resolved, 41.7% believe that they should be dealt with within a new structure in the new country whereas 28.6% believe that the issues should be resolved prior to any referendum.

While support for a united Ireland is strong, the sense of urgency does not match the renewed intensity.

The preferred time horizon seems to be short-term, but not immediate. Those in favour of a united Ireland are somewhat divided on the urgency of the issue.

When asked about their preferred timing of a prospective referendum there is a preference for conducting a border poll at some stage in the future over doing so now – by a margin of 45.7% over 33.4%, with 12.9% suggesting not at all.

More specifically, in terms of this time horizon, just 22.5% want it immediately whereas 40.7% would consider it at some stage within the next five years. Even Sinn Féin supporters prefer this medium time horizon over immediacy.

What is clear is that although Sinn Féin has increased its support, small ‘c’ conservativism about a united Ireland persists.

There is a preference for peace and stability over the immediacy of a united Ireland. Domestic issues such as healthcare, housing, education and the economy are regarded as more important.

While there is some willingness for an inclusive united Ireland, there is further progress required in this area if a united Ireland were to be achieved for those that want it.

  • Dr. Kevin Cunningham is a lecturer in Politics and Journalism at Technological University Dublin

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