The question of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is now a central issue in Brexit negotiations. With the UK government promising to leave the EU customs union and single market, the Irish government insists the UK must commit not to introduce a hard border on the island of Ireland after Brexit.
Northern Irish politicians also want to avoid the return of a hard border, but do not want a deal that would impose different rules on Northern Ireland than the rest of the UK.
This places the UK in a strenuous position of having to solve a riddle where not everyone can win, while ensuring peace and stability in the region at the same time. But what do the British public think about the issue?
A survey we commissioned from the polling company YouGov as part of our research sheds light on the preferences of the British public on the Brexit deal. The survey was conducted on June 29, 2017, just a few days after official negotiations for departure began between the UK and the EU. Our sample consisted of 1,698 people and is representative of the general British population in terms of age, gender, education, social grade, region, and political preferences.
The survey measured public attitudes towards the issue of the Irish border and showed a large majority were opposed to border controls. Respondents were asked where they sat on a scale of zero to ten, where zero indicated that Britain should introduce borders between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and ten indicated that it shouldn’t. The mean response on the scale was seven: 21% of the responses leaned towards supporting the border, 12% remained neutral, and 67% indicated their opposition to introducing border controls.
Opposition to the Irish border was stronger among citizens who voted Remain in the EU referendum in June 2016. The proportion of respondents opposed to border controls remained at 49% among Leave voters, but reached 83% among Remain voters.
At the same time, the large proportion of Leave supporters who also disagreed with the implementation of border controls suggests that the opinion on the Irish border does not fully mirror how people voted in the referendum.
Opposition to the Irish border was strongest among the 47 respondents to the survey in Northern Ireland. Proportionally, 11% of the citizens interviewed in Northern Ireland indicated their support for border controls but a whopping 85% were opposed, with 4% remaining impartial. While the number of Northern Irish respondents was not large enough to generalise the results to the entire region, the findings are still indicative of public mood in Northern Ireland, which voted to remain in the EU by a majority of 56%.
Trade top priority
The results also showed that economics and trade are the key policy priority for the UK public in Brexit negotiations. Compared to other issues, such as agriculture, social affairs, migration or foreign policy, 52% of the respondents named trade as one of the priority areas for the UK government in the Brexit talks. But respondents were divided in their support for the free trade area, with 40% agreeing and 36% disagreeing that Britain should leave the customs union and introduce customs checks on British imports and exports to the EU after Brexit.
Our findings suggest how controversial the issue a hard border on the island of Ireland would be. While UK citizens tend to oppose border controls with Northern Ireland, they are split on the general question of whether the UK should leave the customs union.
Theresa May has promised a clean break from the single market and customs union, but needs to square this position with the reality of pressures towards a softer border in Ireland. At the same time the Democratic Unionist Party warned that any kind of special status for Northern Ireland would be unacceptable. As their votes are propping up the Conservative government, the stability of the government is at stake over the Irish border question.