United Ireland - what has changed

It can't be the impact of the Queen's visit to the Republic, as the research for the latest NI Life and Times survey was conducted between October and December last year.

So what explains the surprising outcome that only 33% of Catholics want a United Ireland?

Explanations include the parlous state of the Irish economy and the increasing stability of the Stormont devolved government. It's obviously a factor that the survey introduced the option of continuing devolution as a suggested long term policy.

Back in 2006 when people were asked to choose between the United Kingdom and a united Ireland, 56% of Catholics still plumped for reunification.

But ever since 2007, when the current dispensation was introduced as a long term option, less than half of Catholic's opted for a United Ireland.

The survey doesn't point to any great love for Stormont - 63% of people said the way the Assembly is organised means nothing gets done.

However whilst they might not be fans of Stormont, a large number of people seem content to see it continue into the future.

Rather than hankering after Britain or Ireland, maybe people increasingly see themselves as "Northern Irish".

Indeed the survey found that whilst 34% of those questioned identified themselves as unionist, and 20% as nationalist, 45% view themselves as neither.

Ostensibly this reads, as the Belfast Telegraph put it as "bad news" for Gerry Adams. And yet Sinn Fein remain the dominant force within northern nationalism.

There are echoes of the situation in Scotland where voters are thought to back the SNP because they see Alex Salmond as the most competent, muscular representative on offer, rather than because they share all his views on breaking with England.

Whilst unionists have welcomed the Life and Times survey, nationalists have questioned the results.

Sinn Fein's Barry McElduff declared that nationalists continued to support the goal of a United Ireland and argued that the real debate could be settled by calling a referendum.

But such a referendum is only to be called if the Secretary of State believes it's likely "that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland".

Not, Owen Paterson might say, on the basis of these figures. Intriguingly Schedule 1 of the 1998 Northern Ireland Act says that any order for a poll shall specify "the question or questions to be asked".

What would happen if we got to the point of an historic border poll and the government, just like the Life and Times survey, introduced a third way option?

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