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‘It is not as simple as Catholics voting for a united Ireland and Protestants voting against’

Focus group conversations about Irish unity conducted by ARINS and The Irish Times reveal information gaps on both sides of the Border, but also a willingness to change minds. Article published in The Irish Times 10 July 2023.

Extracts from John Doyle, Jennifer Todd and Joanne McEvoy’s article in The Irish Times>>

Surveys give a snapshot of declared opinion at a point in time. What they don’t do is capture the strength of conviction or willingness to consider alternatives. Focus groups do that – they give participants time to volunteer their views and to explain and reassess their reasoning.

Research conducted last year by ARINS – which is a joint research project of the Royal Irish Academy and the Keough-Naughton centre for Irish studies at the University of Notre Dame – and The Irish Times on future political arrangements on the island of Ireland, relied on two major polls and on focus groups – with some interesting and unexpected results.

While the results of the simultaneous surveys published last year found that there are currently clear majorities against unity in the North and in favour in the South, the research as a whole – including the focus group discussions – also revealed that for many people there is an appetite for further information and discussion on the topic.

What we learned offers direction for the next phase. One striking insight were the information gaps on major issues. There was a lack of understanding, North and South, on public entitlements on the “other” side of the Border. Most participants had never had a formal conversation about Irish unity in this type of professional setting and wanted such dialogue to start now – long before referendums. People in each jurisdiction knew very little about the cost of living, the school system, the health service or benefit entitlements in the other. They also knew almost nothing about what would happen if referendums voted for Irish unity – not even on clear issues such as EU membership, and they wanted expert information on such topics.

The research showed people’s strong desire for a more structured discussion on the implications of a united Ireland, and for expert information – in particular on economics and public services. And it showed that participants – even those who initially expressed strong opinions – were open to considering alternatives.

In the two Northern Ireland focus groups most of the participants were clear that the issue of Irish unity was not just a matter of traditional identity politics. They said things like: “I don’t think it’s as simple as Catholics voting for a united Ireland and Protestants not. I think it’s become a much more open debate now.” Even when identity seemed to determine initial uncompromising responses – as in the immediate Southern refusal to contemplate change in the national flag, anthem and emblems – by the end of the session even the most assertive participants’ openness to dialogue on these issues was evident.

The next phase should be one of scoping out and debating the range of acceptable ideas and only narrowing down to defined options later in the process. What is needed now is a sustained and systemic process of discussion and deliberation. Both the survey and the focus groups reveal a lack of knowledge, a lack of prior discussion, but also a willingness to listen, learn and change opinions. Whatever the outcome of referendums, an open deliberative process can build a greater degree of acceptance by those who end up on the “losing side”.

The Irish Times piece is based on the authors’ peer-reviewed paper, which was published last month in Irish Studies of International Affairs: Time for Deliberation, not Decision, on the Shape of a New United Ireland: Evidence from the ARINS Survey Focus Groups

Survey results are published here.