The Life and Times Survey last week, which claimed that 16% of the population of the north and 33% of Catholic favour a united Ireland, caused jubilation in some unionist circles and among those in the media who support this position. Given our experience with inexact, and occasionally totally wrong opinion polls over many years, most nationalists and republicans took a much more relaxed attitude.
This blog wasn’t surprised by the unionist political reaction. Unionist politicians are continually seeking reassurance on the union. Usually it has to come from British Prime Ministers who must constantly declare at every opportunity their support for the union.
Sometimes it’s a visit by some member of the British royal family; occasionally it’s from election results or opinion polls.
But the demand by unionist politicians for regular reminders of British support for the union is a constant. It is a measure of the insecurity of the unionist political elite, and the impact of a partitionist arrangement which many know makes no sense politically or economically, that this is a frequent feature of northern politics.
One reason why political unionism was opposed to the Good Friday Agreement, and even today seeks to change it, is that for the first time there is an international treaty, between the British and Irish governments, which accepts that there is an equivalence between the union and the desire for a united Ireland.
In the negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement Sinn Fein succeeded in getting the British to scrap the Government of Ireland Act through which it claimed jurisdiction over a part of Ireland. This was a significant development.
And the strength of the Agreement’s position on the constitutional question was exemplified two weeks ago when the British Prime Minister addressed the Assembly. David Cameron reminded the assembled MLAs that ‘as the Agreement makes very clear,’ the constitutional future of the north does not rest in his hands or those of his government but in the hands of the people.
As a unionist Mr. Cameron made his preference clear but he was equally frank in his public declaration that the British government will always back the democratic wishes of the people whether ‘to remain part of the United Kingdom, as is my strong wish…or whether it’s to be part of a united Ireland’.
Later when he was privately challenged on this by the leader of the UUP the British Prime Minister stuck by this position.
The reality is that contrary to Margaret Thatcher’s claim many years ago, the north is not as British as Finchley! And in their hearts unionists know this.
So, in this context what significance should be attached to the Life and Times survey?
As has often been said the only opinion poll that matters is the one in which people put their mark on a ballot paper and that into a ballot box for counting. Everything else is just so much speculation.
This blog remembers when Sinn Féin first put forward candidates for an Assembly election. It was 1982, the year after the hunger strike. The BBC organised an opinion poll. It concluded that Sinn Féin would win no seats and that we would take somewhere around 3% of the vote. Sinn Féin was dismissed as irrelevant.
In the end Sinn Féin won 5 seats, 10% of the vote, and our emergence as an electoral force in northern politics was the story of the election.
In the years since then the unionist vote has slipped. In 1982 the Ulster Unionists and the DUP between them picked up 52.7% of the vote and Alliance took an additional 9.3%. The combined unionist vote was regularly took around 60% of the total.
But in the last decade there has been a decline. The unionist vote share has dropped from roughly 60% to around 50%.
In 2005 the combined unionist vote was 55.3%. In 2007 it was 50.2% and a few months ago in the Assembly election the unionist vote was again 50.2%.
The combined Sinn Féin and SDLP vote in 2005 was 41.2%; in 2010 it was 42% and a few months ago it was 41.4%.
Given that both Sinn Fein and the SDLP are pro united Ireland parties the figure produced by the Life and Times survey is clearly at odds with what people actually do when presented with the opportunity to vote.
And this is the key.
Opinion polls are a standard feature of modern life. They are used by governments, political parties, the media, and business seeking to develop and sell new products.
They are useful guides. But that is all they are. Often they get it wrong, as companies whose products have failed to sell, or movie makers whose films have failed to light up the box office, or political parties whose real vote has crashed, will all testify to.
If Sinn Fein was to take the Life and Times opinion poll at face value we would be in crisis. According to it we have 11% of the vote, just one more than the Alliance Party!
But in May Sinn Féin took almost 27% of the vote!
And it is in this new situation that the opportunity for promoting Irish unity is greater than ever before.
Over 40% of the electorate vote for parties which are for a united Ireland. A small percentage of those identified as protestant say they want Irish unity. But interestingly 85% of those polled by Life and Times would live with and accept a united Ireland if it was achieved. When this was broken down on the basis of religion 80% of protestants could live with and accept Irish unity.
There was a time when it was claimed that any move toward a united Ireland would see unionists react violently. Life and Times suggests that this too has changed.
The Good Friday Agreement provides for a legislative road to Irish unity. There is a constitutional mechanism in place to end the union and partition.
If Life and Times has a message it is that this goal is more achievable than ever before.
Irish unity will not be won through opinion polls. It will be achieved by persuading citizens to vote in a referendum for that option and to do so in a way which ensures maximum support and political stability. This blog believes we can do this.