More than half (53 percent) of people say it is “important” that Northern Ireland stays part of the UK, compared with just 12 percent who say it is “not important”. The Savanta ComRes polling comes as debate mounts on both sides of the Irish border about the potential of a referendum on Irish unification. A mere seven percent of more than 2,000 UK adults polled said it was “not at all” important that Northern Ireland remains part of the union, compared with 29 percent who said it was “very” important.
People who voted for Brexit are most likely to value Northern Ireland’s status as one of the four nations of the UK. While nearly two-thirds of Leavers (65 percent) said it was important it stayed, this was true for less than half of Remainers (49 percent).
The polling also reveals strong suspicion that Brussels may be trying to use special arrangements for Northern Ireland to thwart Brexit.
Forty-two percent agreed that “by tying Northern Ireland to EU single market rules the Northern Ireland protocol (NIP) is a backdoor way of not implementing Brexit” – and a mere nine percent disagreed.
The protocol, a key element of the Brexit deal, was designed to avoid the need for customs checks along the Irish border but there is fury in some unionist circles that it has impeded trade between Northern Ireland and England, Scotland and Wales.
The polling, commissioned by the Centre for Brexit Policy (CBP), uncovers concerns that the tensions could jeopardise the peace process and may contravene the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement which was instrumental in ending the Troubles.
Nearly six out of 10 people (57 percent) said the protocol is a threat to peace and stability in Northern Ireland with fewer than one in five (19 percent) saying it is not.
Half of respondents (50 percent) say it is unfair that Northern Ireland is treated differently to the UK with just 22 percent saying it is fair. More than three out of 10 (31 percent) say protocol breaches the Good Friday Agreement, while just 20 percent say it does not.
Former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson, who chairs the CBP, said the findings should be a wake-up call to Conservative ministers and MPs.
He said: “The polling shows that the British people understand that the NIP radically changes the status of Northern Ireland and is threatening its stability. Nobel peace prize winner and architect of the Belfast Agreement Lord Trimble has said consistently that the NIP breaches the principle of consent that the status of Northern Ireland cannot change without the consent of the people.
“Lord Trimble is an advocate of mutual enforcement as a solution which would guarantee the sovereignty of the UK and the integrity of the EU Single Market.”
A UK Government spokesperson said the concerns of people in Northern Ireland about the impact the protocol is having on their identity cannot be ignored.
The spokesperson said: “Northern Ireland is an integral part of our United Kingdom, so we can’t ignore the disruption that the protocol is causing, nor can we ignore the concerns of those in Northern Ireland who worry about impact it is having on their identity and Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.
“That’s why we are working with the EU to try and resolve the issues but we’ll consider all options if solutions can’t be found. The Government’s priority will always be the protection of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and the peace process.”
Sammy Wilson, a DUP MP and director of the CBP, strongly welcomed the polling.
He said: “The good sense of the British people is winning through and not for the first time. For all the smoke and mirrors of politicians and officials in the Republic of Ireland and Brussels, the public know that the hidden agenda here is to use the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland as a way of wrecking Brexit.
“They must not be allowed to get away with it. They also know that hard-line advocates of the protocol are playing with fire.
“Northern Ireland is an integral part of the UK and foreign powers should not be allowed to interfere with trade within a sovereign state.”