On Monday, Rishi Sunak and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen met in Windsor to announce a new agreement grandly titled the ‘Windsor Framework.’ This agreement, which promises a ‘new way forward’ in dealing with trade issues in Northern Ireland caused by the original Protocol agreement, was hailed by the Prime Minister as a deal “which delivers smooth-flowing trade within the whole of the United Kingdom, protects Northern Ireland’s place in our union and safeguards sovereignty for the people of Northern Ireland.”
As reports of an impending deal increased last week, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies asked British voters a range of questions about their view on the negotiations and their attitudes towards Northern Ireland’s constitutional future.
Prior to this week’s announcement, British voters generally believed the EU had been a bigger roadblock to an agreement on Northern Ireland than the UK. When asked last week—before the Windsor Framework Agreement was announced—a plurality of 41% believed the EU had been less willing than the UK to compromise in the negotiations, against 31% who believed it was the UK that had been more unwilling to compromise.
There was a clear partisan split on who voters believed had been the most intransigent, with 56% of 2019 Conservative voters saying the EU had been more unwilling to compromise, while 46% of Labour voters said it was the UK that had been more unwilling to compromise.
As part of the agreement, Rishi Sunak has agreed to drop legislation introduced under Boris Johnson which—if passed—would have allowed the British Government to unilaterally override the Northern Ireland Protocol it had agreed with the European Union. The introduction of the legislation had angered the EU, which had described the bill as “illegal and unrealistic.”
Our polling, however, suggests British voters would have supported the UK acting unilaterally on Northern Ireland. A plurality of 39% last week said they would have supported the UK acting unilaterally on the issue of Northern Ireland, against only 13% who said they would have opposed such unilateral action. The willingness to support such action had actually risen since September, when only 30% said they would have supported the UK acting without the EU’s agreement.
As ever with Northern Ireland, the issue of the protocol is not simple. While notionally a trade issue, the highly symbolic construction of customs posts at Northern Irish ports—to ensure that goods travelling from Britain were not destined for Ireland and the EU single market—aroused fury among the Unionist community, with the posts and inspectors themselves becoming targets of hostility.
Since shortly after the Protocol was agreed, Unionist politicians have alleged that the creation of an ‘Irish sea border’ for goods threatens Northern Ireland’s place in the Union, pulling them closer towards a United Ireland by default. Voters in Great Britain, however, are much more sanguine about the possibility of Northern Ireland one day leaving the Union.
While a plurality of 37% say they would be neutral on Irish unification, the willingness to support (32%) is more than three times higher than the level of opposition (10%). Support is highest among young voters, with 43% of those aged 18-24 and 41% of those between 25 and 34 saying they would support Irish unification, against only 23% of those aged between 55 and 64 who would support unification. A plurality of 2019 Labour voters (46%) also would support Irish unification.
While an eye-catching finding, this result affirms the UK Government’s official position, which—as a signatory to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement—holds that Britain would support Irish unification if such a move was approved by a majority of voters in Ireland, north and south, in separate referenda.
That said, voters in Great Britain do not think a referendum on Irish unification would lead to constitutional change at this time. If such a referendum were to be held, a plurality (41%) believe the pro-United Kingdom side would win, against 24% who believe the pro-Irish unification side would win. 35% don’t know which side would win.
This latest result represents a very small change from April 2021, when 39% of British voters thought the pro-UK side would win, against 21% who thought a pro-unification campaign would be victorious.
Brexit—and the unique questions it poses for people in Northern Ireland about their identity, trading arrangements, and political relationships—has once again forced people there to confront questions about their constitutional future. While the deal struck this week may resolve some of the trade issues that Brexit has caused, the political conundrums it has posed will remain.
For British voters, however, the perspective is different. Only 3% of voters say the Union is an issue that would determine their vote in an election. Nor is Brexit the electorally salient issue it was in 2019, with only 13% of voters in our latest poll saying it is one of the three most important issues that would determine how they voted.
The new deal on Northern Ireland—if it can get through parliament—will undoubtedly be the most noteworthy achievement of Sunak’s premiership so far. But given that 47% of the British public say they understand ’nothing at all’ about the deal, and 59% say it matters ‘not at all’ to them personally, the agreement is unlikely to be the catalyst for leading the Conservatives out of their present poll slump.
Voters will judge this government by its performance on the economy and the NHS. It is on those issues, not Northern Ireland, that the Conservatives will need to show rapid results if they are to turn their political fortunes around.