The referendum in 2016 which took Britain out of the European Union exposed deep divisions both between and within the countries that make up the United Kingdom. While majorities of voters in both England and Wales voted to leave the European Union, majorities in Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain in the European Union.
In Northern Ireland, 56% voted ‘Remain’ while 44% backed ‘Leave.’ But these figures only tell half the story.
Voting patterns on the EU membership referendum in Northern Ireland split along the province’s historic religious and ethno-national fault line. While 85% of Catholics and 88% of self-declared nationalists voted ‘Remain,’ majorities of both Protestants (60%) and unionists (66%) voted ‘Leave.’
Across the North Channel in Scotland, the result was more clear cut, as more voters supported ‘Remain’ than ‘Leave’ in every single region of the country. Overall, 62% of Scottish voters backed ‘Remain,’ while just 38% voted ‘Leave.’
In the years that have followed the ‘Brexit’ vote, Irish and Scottish nationalists have seen the UK’s exit from the EU as a potential catalyst for constitutional change. Mary Lou McDonald, the leader of Sinn Féin, the leading Irish nationalist party, has called Irish unity “the solution” to Brexit.
In 2018 Nicola Sturgeon, then Scottish First Minister and leader of the Scottish National Party, told her party’s conference that the tortuous negotiations on the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU “have shown why Scotland needs to be independent.” Re-joining the EU as an independent country remains a core SNP policy.
In our latest tracker poll in association with the UK in a Changing Europe on Britons attitudes towards Brexit, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies’ find that more Britons believe the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU makes both Irish unification and Scottish independence more likely.
In the case of Irish unification, a plurality of 32% believe the United Kingdom leaving the European Union makes it more likely that Northern Ireland will join the Irish Republic to create a united Ireland. This view has been the most common in eight of the nine polls we have conducted since February 2022 as part of our Brexit attitudes tracker.
24% of Britons, on the other hand, believe the UK’s exit from the EU makes it more likely that Northern Ireland will remain a part of the United Kingdom, while nearly a quarter (22%) believe it will make no difference either way.
Previous polling conducted in February shows that most voters in Great Britain are largely indifferent to Northern Ireland’s constitutional fate, with only 10% saying they would oppose Irish unification, against 32% who would support it and 37% who would neither support nor oppose it.
As regards Scotland, going back to February 2021, a plurality of respondents in our Great Britain tracker have consistently said Scotland should not be an independent country.
For now, voters in Scotland itself appear to be narrowly in favour of remaining in the UK.
Our latest Scottish political tracker shows 50% of Scottish voters would vote ‘No’ to independence in a hypothetical independence referendum, as opposed to 43% who would vote ‘Yes’ in such a vote.
However, as with Northern Ireland, voters in Great Britain as a whole do believe the UK’s departure from the EU has increased the likelihood of Scotland leaving the union, although this number has been declining.
In our latest poll, a plurality of 38% think the UK’s departure from the EU makes it more likely that Scotland will become an independent country, a number which has fallen from a high of 50% in February last year. Conversely, just 20% think leaving the EU makes it more likely that Scotland will remain within the UK.
Recent surveys in both countries seem to show some differing expectations about their respective constitutional futures.
In Northern Ireland, more people now think it is likely that a united Ireland will exist in twenty years (45%) than Northern Ireland staying in the United Kingdom (38%), while a majority of 63% say Brexit has made a united Ireland more likely.
In Scotland, meanwhile, the recent travails of the once dominant SNP have reduced expectations that a referendum on independence would result in a ‘Yes’ vote, with a narrow plurality (43%) now saying they believe a referendum held in the next six months would result in a ‘No’ vote.
Ultimately, however, the fate of the union is not a pressing electoral concern for most voters.
Just 3% of voters name Scottish Independence/The union as one of the three most important issues that would determine their vote in a General Election, a number that has remained in the low single digits for the past two years.
In short, while it is too early yet to say what the consequences of Britain’s departure from the EU will be for the three-hundred-year-old United Kingdom, more Britons think Brexit makes it more likely that the Union will break up than think the event makes it less likely. Only time will tell if those estimations prove well founded, or if the bonds that tie England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland together are more resilient than voters currently give them credit.