The survey found that 28% of SDLP voters would be happy to remain within the United Kingdom and a minority (44%) aspire to a united Ireland. Even amongst Sinn Féin supporters, 16 % were found to favour Northern Ireland remaining within the Union.
What is striking about these figures is that a substantial proportion of the perceived nationalist electorate are simply voting along community lines rather than registering disapproval of the constitutional link between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They are voting for parties that they understand to represent their community, but they are quite happy to remain part of the United Kingdom.
As Reg Empey acknowledges, although the results should be treated with caution, the figures are substantial enough to suggest that there is a significant proportion of the electorate who currently vote nationalist, but who wish to retain the Union. ‘For other reasons’ these voters feel more comfortable giving their support to the SDLP or even Sinn Féin.
Shadow Secretary of State Owen Patterson sees the result as an affirmation of the UUP / Tory project.
“The poll confirms there is a demand for what we are currently talking about with the Ulster Unionists, which is national politics, and that people do look more to mainland Britain than perhaps to southern Ireland.”
The challenge for the new alignment is to offer pan-UK, pro-Union politics, which represent, and certainly do not alienate, voters of all cultural identities. There is clearly more of an appetite for the severance of cultural and political identity amongst Northern Ireland’s electorate than is often allowed.