This claim is accurate with consideration. 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 did not vote in the 2019 General election and who stated a constitutional preference chose “to remain part of the UK”.
However, only 31.1% of those non-voters expressed a preference about whether NI should remain part of the UK or reunify with the rest of Ireland. The remaining 68.9% of respondents who were non voters either had no preference or kept it to themselves.
UPDATE: This article was updated on 16 November 2021 (without changing the conclusion) and again on 5 April 2022 (reclassifying the claim from ACCURATE to ACCURATE WITH CONSIDERATION). Further details at the bottom of the article.
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”.
Share of those who stated a constitutional preference who did not vote
|To remain part of the UK|
|To reunify with the rest of Ireland|
|Share of all respondents|
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 identified as non-voters (they responded “no” when asked if they voted in the 2019 General election). This compares with election turnout figures which show that 37.9% of the eligible electorate did not vote in the 2019 General Election (i.e., 480,192 non-voters).
Survey framing matters
Opinion surveys regularly exclude certain responses from people who have answered (or are determined to have indicated) that they did not previously vote previously. There is often a preference to learn the views of people “likely to vote”.
The debate about whether the views of non-voters should be recorded and analysed is beyond the scope of this fact check.
The UL-commissioned survey is one survey that reports the constitutional preferences of non-voters. On its own and based on its research methodology, the reporting of responses can be viewed as accurate.
Updates to this article
- This article was updated on 16 November 2021. A section that compared the percentage of non-voters identified across four different organisations’ polls was removed. We made this simplification after further discussions with polling organisations. This clarification did not affect FactCheckNI’s original conclusion about the claim.
- This article was updated again on 5 April 2022. The conclusion was changed from ACCURATE to ACCURATE TO CONSIDERATION based on the caveat now attached to the conclusion above.
This article was originally published on 18 June 2021 and updated on 16 November 2021 and 5 April 2022.
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