Are 75% of non-voters in Northern Ireland pro-Union?

CLAIM: Three-quarters of non-voters in Northern Ireland are pro-Union.

CONCLUSION: ACCURATE. The claim that three-quarters of non-voters in Northern Ireland are pro-Union is based on evidence from a research survey commissioned on behalf of the University of Liverpool. It found that 76.9% of respondents who are non-voters who stated a constitutional preference chose “to remain part of the UK”.  FactCheckNI has not found evidence of other surveys recording constitutional preferences of non-voters, but future surveys may provide more information about this cohort.

During an episode of BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight programme, Professor Peter Shirlow claimed (at 24:55): “Three-quarters of people who don’t vote in Northern Ireland are pro-Union.” This claim was made in the context of a discussion on the new leaders of two Unionist parties, the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party.

How do we know the views of non-voters?

Shirlow confirmed with FactCheckNI that this figure came from a Northern Ireland General Election Survey (2019) that was commissioned by Professor Jon Tonge of the University of Liverpool (UL), at which Shirlow is the director of the Institute of Irish Studies.

The survey, conducted by Social Market Research (SMR), is based on a representative sample of electors aged 18 and over in Northern Ireland. In total, 2,003 electors were interviewed, spanning all 18 parliamentary constituencies in Northern Ireland.

The figure relevant to this claim is found in a table in the survey report: “To Remain in UK or to reunify with Ireland by Voters and Non-Voters who state a preference”. The table states that almost a third (31.1%) of all respondents who are non-voters gave a preference to one of the two constitutional choices. Of these non-voters in the survey, 76.9% chose the response, “To remain part of the UK”.

Voters Non-voters Share of those who stated a constitutional preference who did not vote
To remain part of the UK 70.5% 29.5% 76.9%
To reunify with the rest of Ireland 83.0% 16.9% 23.0%
Share of all respondents 67.5% 31.1% 31.1%

This figure also appears elsewhere in the survey report.

How many non-voters in Northern Ireland?

In the UL survey, 31.1% of all respondents were non-voters. This compares with 37.9% of those eligible to vote in the 2019 General Election who did not vote; there were 480,192 non-voters (close to “c500k”). Over the past five General Elections (2005–2019), the average share of non-voters was 38.5%. The UL survey slightly underrepresents the share of non-voters in Northern Ireland.

Other surveys of people in Northern Ireland have a wide range of percentages of non-voters. For example, in another FactCheckNI fact check, we looked at several other surveys that asked people about their constitutional preferences. The four surveys have the following percentages of non-voters for the relevant question.

    1. Queen’s University Belfast (polling by Ipsos-MORI) (2018): 10.3%
    2. BBC (polling by LucidTalk) (2018): 0.4%
    3. Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (2017): 12.0%
    4. Lord Ashcroft Polling (2019): 0.0%

The BBC and Lord Ashcroft Polling surveys have figures of near zero respondents who indicated that they would not vote, which is significantly unrepresentative of the actual average non-voting figure of 38.5% or the figure of 19.9% non-voters for the 1998 Northern Ireland Referendum.

Survey framing matters

The wording and framing of survey questions matter. In the above four surveys, we don’t know the constitutional views of non-voters, because if you responded that you wouldn’t vote, there is no other opportunity to respond with your preference; only the preferences of voters were recorded. In contrast, in the UL survey these two questions are separated.

The debate about whether the views of non-voters should be recorded and analysed is beyond the scope of this fact check.

The UL survey is one survey of many that report the constitutional preferences of non-voters. On its own and based on its research methodology, the reporting of responses can be viewed as accurate. However, future surveys that ask such questions of non-voters will help understand whether this finding is particular to one survey or is indicative of a socio-political trend.

FactCheckNI is Northern Ireland’s first and only dedicated independent fact-checking service and a verified signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can learn more about about FactCheckNI, our personnel, what our article verdicts mean, and how to submit a claim.