Surge in support for Irish unity
41% Britons favour united Ireland; Only 26% want Ulster in UK
Special report: Northern Ireland --- Guardian Newspaper 2001
A verdict to strike a chill through Ulster unionism comes in today's Guardian/ ICM poll, which finds more Britons think Northern Ireland should be part of a united Ireland than believe it belongs in the United Kingdom.
In a finding that hits at the very heart of unionist ideology - which regards the province as an integral part of the UK - 41% of Britons believe Northern Ireland should be joined with the Irish republic while only 26% say it should continue as part of the UK.
For unionists, many of whom consider themselves British and refer to Britain as "the mainland", today's findings amount to a cold shoulder from their fellow citizens. Only one in four wants the province to stay part of the country.
Nationalists and republicans are bound to seize on the results as evidence that Britons are ready to let Northern Ireland go. The cherished goal of both movements remains a united Ireland.
Government ministers are likely to take note of today's results, too. Tony Blair said soon after he came to office in 1997 that he did not believe he would see a united Ireland in his lifetime. The Good Friday agreement leaves the final say to the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum. But British officials have spoken privately of a limited public patience in Britain with Northern Ireland and its problems - and today's poll seems to vindicate that.
The survey holds even more dispiriting news for unionism. Asked who they blame for the current problems in the Northern Ireland peace process, 3% named unionists, 5% said republicans, while 64% blamed both sides equally.
Unionists have long argued that it is the republican refusal to move on arms decommissioning that remains the province's key problem. They have also assumed the British public would sympathise with UK citizens who, unionists insist, face a terrorist threat from the IRA.
Yet the poll suggests no such British public sympathy but instead a "plague on both your houses" impatience with the two sides.
To add to unionist misery, ICM's polling was done over the weekend - following the widely condemned withdrawal by the IRA of its breakthrough offer on disarmament and amid allegations of renewed IRA terrorist activity in Colombia and elsewhere. Anti-republican feelings could have been expected to surge.
Yet few respondents drew any distinction between republicans and unionists when it came to apportioning blame for the current stalemate. Instead they lumped the two sides together, in a declaration that amounted to "They're both as bad as each other".
Unionists will find it particularly galling that they are bracketed with republicans, whom they regard as beyond the pale. They believe only armed loyalists have any similarity to republicans - not mainstream unionists like themselves.
Nor will they draw any comfort from the high proportion of "don't knows": 33% on the united Ireland question and 27% on the question of blame. Pollsters often cite apathy or indifference as the explanation for such high scores, suggesting Northern Ireland is simply not relevant to many Britons.
The main findings represent a long-term shift in British opinion on the future of the province. Surveys in the 80s and 90s showed opinion was much more evenly divided - with just a point or two separating the two opposing views.
Today's poll sees the pro-unification camp extend a 15% lead over the stay-in-the-UK position.
It also brings Britain closer into line with opinion within the Irish republic - where polls show an overwhelming majority continues to favour unification.
A 1999 survey found 86% of Irish voters still wanted to unite the island - despite a massive "Yes" vote in the May 1998 referendum approving the Good Friday agreement, which required the republic to renounce its constitutional claim on the north.
Surveys in the US have shown clear majorities of American opinion in favour of a united Ireland, too. With today's poll confirming that British views are shifting dramatically, Ulster's unionists look increasingly isolated in their opposition to Irish unity.
Meanwhile, the Guardian/ ICM monthly survey of the state of the parties holds good news for Labour and more gloom for the Conservatives.
Labour's share of the vote has increased by four points since the general election, while the Tories have slipped by three points - giving the government a lead of 16 points. Lack of a leader and highly public internal divisions are the likeliest cause of the Conservative slide.
The only disappointment for Labour is that its lead has not increased more sharply since June 7. Following victory in May 1997, the government won a huge poll boost - leading a month later by a whopping 39 points. There seems to be no such honeymoon for Labour this time.
ICM interviewed a random sample of 1,004 adults aged 18 and over by telephone between August 17 and 19, 2001. Interviews were conducted across Britain and the results have been weighted to the profile of all adults.