People in Northern Ireland want the UK to stay in the customs union and single market, an in-depth analysis of public attitudes to Brexit has shown.
Researchers from Queen’s University Belfast found that there was “substantial and intense opposition” in Northern Ireland to possible north-south border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
One in five Catholics said they found the possible use of cameras at the border “almost impossible to accept” and almost one in 10 said they would support cameras being vandalized.
There were strong expectations that protests against border checks would quickly deteriorate into violence, the researchers said.
There was “substantial support” for a Brexit that would largely eliminate the need for any North-South or East-West (between Northern Ireland and Great Britain) border checks, namely for the UK as a whole to remain in the customs union and single market.
61% of the population was in favour of the UK as a whole remaining in the customs union and single market, with support for this option 61% among Catholics and 62% among Protestants.
In addition, the research found Catholics were much more likely to support a united Ireland if there was a Hard Brexit in which the UK left both the customs union and single market.
28% of Catholics said they would vote for a united Ireland if the UK changed its mind and remained in the EU, while 53% would vote for a united Ireland if there was a Hard Brexit.
The proportion of people in Northern Ireland wanting to Remain has risen since the 2016 referendum as more people have become aware of the possible costs of leaving the EU. 69% would vote Remain if there was another referendum compared to the 56% who voted Remain at the time of the referendum.
John Garry, principal investigator on the project and professor of political behaviour at Queen’s University Belfast, said: ‘We find Catholics and Protestants most prefer the option that would avoid the need for any new barriers on borders. Either in the Irish Sea or across Ireland.
“They want the UK as a whole to stay in the customs union and single market.’
Brendan O’Leary, Lauder professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, who also holds a visiting position at Queen’s, said: ‘Our results show that if there was another referendum, people in Northern Ireland would vote more strongly to remain in the EU.
“The proportion wanting to Remain has risen since the 2016 referendum as more people have become aware of the possible costs and inconveniences of leaving the EU, as citizens and as employees or employers.’
The research found that many citizens were strongly opposed to any form of border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic and fear that any such barriers would provoke protests and possibly worse.
One middle-aged male Catholic Remain voter said: ‘The cameras will have to be about 300 feet in the air, and even then… you will get certain people take the law unto themselves and [will] cut these things down.
“It would have to be the softest hardest border. Military checkpoint is a no-no. Cameras, that would be a no-no as well.”
The research team observed that Catholics were more likely than Protestants to support the option that would leave Northern Ireland in the customs union and the single market while Great Britain left both.
Prof Garry said: ‘However, what may surprise people is the extent to which Catholics oppose all borders within these islands’.
The option of Great Britain exiting the customs union and the single market while Northern Ireland remains in both is the so-called ‘backstop option.’ It is in the draft withdrawal agreement between the UK and EU27, if no other way can be found to avoid a new hard border.
In discussions about possible protests against any border checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, one male Protestant Leave voter, aged between 35 and 44, highlighted potential reaction.
He said: ‘Flag protests again… and it could escalate if they were forced into a hard border [in the Irish Sea]. Non-violent to start off with, then it would be blocking roads.’
The research, funded by The UK in a Changing Europe, is contained in the report ‘Northern Ireland and the UK’s Exit from the EU: What do people think?’.