A University study investigating opinions in Northern Ireland about the fate of the Irish border after Brexit found that both unionists and nationalists would prefer the least intrusive arrangements possible and that there is a form of border arrangement that could command cross community support.
The research was carried out by a team from the University’s Conflict Analysis Research Centre – Dr Laura Sudulich, Dr Ed Morgan-Jones, Professor Neophytos Loizides, and Professor Feargal Cochrane, all of whom are members of the School of Politics and International Relations (POLIR).
Their study found little public support in Northern Ireland for the consequences of a No Deal outcome, with overall support for this scenario estimated at 34%. A low level of nationalist support for this option is to be expected, but it was also the least favoured option for unionists at an average of 44%.
It is accepted wisdom that voters in Northern Ireland are split on Brexit along the unionist/nationalist divide but the survey shows a more nuanced and potentially more consensual picture. Unionists and nationalists do disagree over their preference for the location of a physical border after Brexit, with nationalists opposing a North/South border and unionists opposing an East/West one in the Irish Sea, but the data suggests there is a point of convergence on the border issue in operational terms.
In a scenario where the border was East-West and characterised by an ‘electronic border with the provision of random physical checks, where there was shared control and maintenance of the border by the UK and Irish governments, and financial compensation for the costs of the border’ (a 10% rise in public spending in Northern Ireland) there was majority support expressed across BOTH unionists and nationalists surveyed (65%). (66% of nationalists and 65% of unionists).
There are clear implications of this survey for both parts of Ireland, namely that depending on how a border frontier is operated – and if accompanied by significant levels of compensation and shared British/Irish control – nationalist and unionist opinion may be more nuanced than the politicians have so far allowed for. The results indicate that the key to the border issue will be in its operation and the extent to which that can be kept as unobtrusive as possible. It also suggests that there are points of consensus in Northern Ireland across the unionist/nationalist spectrum that could be more fully explored.
The survey findings demonstrate trends that policymakers may wish to bear in mind when attempting to build consensus in Northern Ireland for post Brexit arrangements.