A poll released today exposed the fears that Northern Ireland might vote to leave the United Kingdom.

According to Lord Ashcroft (a Tory peer and pollster), a majority of respondents would vote to remain in the Union even if there was a referendum. However, just one in three Northern Irish voters believe that would be the outcome if a so-called ‘border poll’ is held in ten years’ time.

And Lord Ashcroft warns that ‘in Northern Ireland, politics is played for the long term, and with that in mind few are resting easy on the Unionist side’.

Based on interviews with 3,301 people, the poll records that if a vote were held tomorrow, most people would vote not to join the Republic by 54 per cent to 46 per cent (excluding ‘don’t knows’).

Fears that Northern Ireland will eventually vote to quit the United Kingdom are laid bare in a poll published today. Pictured: A 'No Hard Border' poster is seen below a road sign on the Irish side of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland

In a survey published today, fears about Northern Ireland voting to leave the United Kingdom have been exposed. Pictured: A ‘No Hard Border’ poster is seen below a road sign on the Irish side of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland

The pollster describes the result as a ‘welcome early Christmas gift for Unionists’. He adds: ‘In a similar survey two years ago, I found a wafer-thin margin for Ulster to join the Republic in a united Ireland.’

He warns that as in Scotland, ‘ideals of national identity’ are being ‘edged aside’ by a focus on ‘practicalities like public services and living costs’ – but that in the longer term, most voters predict a different outcome in a border poll.

He writes: ‘Most voters expect a referendum or border poll within the next decade, and while the majority believe the province would vote to remain tomorrow, only one in three think this would be the outcome in ten years.’

Factors for such a change of heart include ‘simple demographics’, with one Catholic boasting ‘we breed better’ than the Unionists.

A fire burns in front of the police on the Springfield Road as protests raged in Belfast during the summer

As protests broke out in Belfast, a fire was lit in front of police officers on Springfield Road 

However, the peer warns that Brexit is also an issue, with more than one in five voters saying that leaving the EU ‘has made them question their support for the province remaining part of the UK’.

This comes amid ongoing disputes over the proposal by the Government for an effective amnesty to both terrorists as well as British Army veterans, in order to create a boundary under the prosecutions resulting from the Troubles.

Last week, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis had to delay plans for legislation. This was in response to reports that Defence Secretary Ben Wallace felt the plans were unfair for military veterans.

A senior Ministry of Defence source dismissed the claims yesterday as speculation, adding that the Government was ‘committed to finding a solution’.

Unionists can cheer now – but here are five reasons their joy may be short-lived, writes LORD ASHCROFT 


The news that Northern Ireland voters would choose to stay in the UK – by a majority of 54 per cent to 46 per cent – excluding those undecided – is a welcome early Christmas gift for Unionists. A similar survey was conducted two years ago and I discovered a thin margin that Ulster could join the Republic of a united Ireland.

In Scotland, which has lost support for independence, the ideals of national identity have been discarded in favor of practicalities and living costs.

Given the state of the economies in both countries and the benefits that Northern Ireland receives from UK spending, it is not hard to believe Ireland wouldn’t want to fight the North.

There are also practical questions, aside from old loyalty and historic destiny. How would the health system look like? What if you were still eligible for your pension at old age?

The Northern Ireland Protocol was negotiated to avoid a hard border with Ireland, by effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the EU¿s single market for goods. Pictured: Violence broke out after a Loyalist protest, with youths attacking police officers and petrol-bombing a bus

The Northern Ireland Protocol was negotiated to avoid a hard border with Ireland, by effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods. Pictured: After a Loyalist demonstration, violence broke out with young people attacking officers and petrol bombing buses.

Then there’s the tenor of any border campaign, never mind the aftermath, whatever the result. All these things add up to a majority for the status quo… at least for now.

In Northern Ireland, politics can only be played over the long term. Unionists are not resting on their laurels. Most voters expect a referendum or ‘border poll’ within the next decade, and while the majority believe the province would vote to remain tomorrow, only one in three think this would be the outcome in ten years’ time.

Their pessimism can be attributed to five factors. This is a simple matter of demographics.

As one Catholic voter told us cheerfully and candidly in nationalist Strabane: ‘We breed better than they do. They have big TVs; we have big families.’ More than seven in ten voters aged under 25 said they would vote for a united Ireland.

Brexit is second. Many believe leaving the EU was a bad decision for Northern Ireland. Nearly nine in ten also blame Brexit for their shop shortages. Over one fifth of respondents say they are questioning their support for Northern Ireland being a part of the UK after Brexit.

Third is the belief that the rest of the UK is indifferent to Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. Voters on all sides feel that their British compatriots regard them as an expensive nuisance, and that any talk of ‘levelling up’ applies to the North of England, not to them.

Fireworks explode at police vehicles after being fired at police officers with a water cannon during clashes with nationalist youths

After being shot at officers using a water cannon, fireworks explode at them after they are fired at them with fireworks during clashes between nationalist youths 

Nearly four in ten Unionists – not to mention two-thirds of nationalists – think that even if it can’t say so, the Westminster Government would rather Ulster joined its southern neighbour. Boris Johnson’s agreement to an Irish Sea border under the Northern Ireland Protocol only adds weight to this perennial suspicion.

Fourth is the understanding that as the Troubles become a more distant memory – and, for younger voters, not even that – traditional loyalties will count for less. It is a way to pray. ‘We’re damaged goods from a time that was just awful,’ as one old Loyalist put it. 

The generation that longed for this was the one where their children could grow up without being dominated by Catholic and Catholic politics. But the more real this vision becomes, the less instinctive loyalty the Union might command – especially as the Republic looks to many like a more modern and liberal place than the North.

Unionist despair is fueled by the feeling they are simply being outclassed in politics. No one would like to see the Good Friday Agreement or the Peace Process go backwards. 

Many believe the nationists can achieve their goal through patience, strategy discipline, reinvention and presentational genius. 

Not in the next decade, maybe. But within their lifetime or their children’s lifetime. Many people on both sides anticipate Sinn Fein becoming the largest party in Stormont next year after the Assembly election.

Unionist movements are in chaos. All sides were dismayed at Arlene Foster’s ouster. Surveys reveal that support has fallen to half the level it was three year ago.

It was clear that past DUP voters from Carrickfergus were exasperated when they spoke. For years, they said, they had put up with what they saw as the party’s outdated stance on social issues as the price of defending the Union, yet the border between Ulster and Great Britain was drawn on its watch.

Many are turning to the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice and its leader Jim Allister – who may be just as socially conservative ‘but at least he doesn’t spout about it’. Many see the only reason to stick with DUP as being to stop Sinn Fein’s First Minister in next year.

However, if the largest pro-Union party is unable to attract many Loyalist voters then how can it be so with younger generations who aren’t as attached to the Union as their grandparents and parents? 

Repelled by the DUP’s stance on issues like gay marriage, they will increasingly look to parties and leaders who share their values, but not necessarily a commitment to Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

Most Northern Ireland voters are keen to remain for the moment. The emerging generation may be persuaded that the UK offers them a better future than the alternative, but today’s fractious and backward-looking Unionist parties are not exactly well placed to make the case.

Lord Ashcroft is an internationally renowned businessman, philanthropist and author. For details about his work, visit lordashcroft.com or lordashcroftpolls.com. Follow him @LordAshcroft on Twitter and Facebook