The Kantar/Irish Independent opinion poll conducted across the island of Ireland in the third week of April and published last weekend is the most authoritative insight into attitudes to a united Ireland that we have got for some time.  

Its core finding is that the dream of a united Ireland is alive and well -- but it's not likely to happen for many years, possibly many decades, if ever.

That is not surprising. Other polls, excluding unreliable telephone polls and small sample polls, held in recent years have shown the same thing. But it's the exhaustive detail in this poll, scientifically done by a leading research company with a very large sample of people (2,250) north and south, that makes this so revealing and convincing.

All the questions and answers can be found online. There's a lot of nuanced information to digest but it's worth studying in full.  

The key points are pretty clear. The main one is that, yes, the old dream of a united Ireland is still alive here in the south, with two-thirds of people in favor. Not only that, but 70 percent favor a border poll within five years.

So that's that, you might think. We in the south are strongly for a united Ireland and we don't want to wait too long for it to happen.  

A few superficial polls in recent years found the same thing and did not ask any follow-up questions The difference with this Kantar poll, however, is that it did probe deeper and the more nuanced findings it reveals are instructive.  

For example, although two out of three people in the south said they are in favor of a united Ireland, only one in five is prepared to pay extra tax to make it possible.   

Another problem is that over 60 percent of people in the south think that reunification could jeopardize peace on the island, a belief that would be likely to influence people if they get to decide in a border poll in the privacy of a voting booth.

What these and other findings in the poll indicate is that there is a yawning gap between a vague wish for reunification and the uncomfortable reality of what it could mean. Such questions and doubts would be amplified in the run-up to a border poll, making the outcome very uncertain to say the least. 

Similar uncertainties were uncovered by this Kantar poll in the North. The basic finding is that only 35 percent of people there are in favor of a united Ireland. How can that be, you might ask, given that unionists are now in a minority?  

What the poll shows is that a quarter of voters who identify as nationalist/republican are not in favor of a united Ireland for practical reasons. It's a matter of the head ruling the heart.

One of the most important of these reasons is the U.K. National Health Service, free to everyone in the North and accessible and reliable in spite of recent difficulties. There are other aspects of life in the south that leave nationalists in the North unimpressed on a personal level.

They might never say it openly, but if it comes down to it in a border poll, simple self-interest is likely to be a deciding factor just as it would be in the south.  

The survey also revealed another reason why a border poll outcome in the North is far from certain. When asked to self-identify in terms of their political leanings it was a three-way split – 36 percent unionist, 33 percent nationalist, and 32 percent neither.

This is not a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to changing attitudes in the North. Both the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin got a kicking in the 2019 election, losing a lot of votes to the Alliance Party and the Greens.

There is a growing middle ground in the North which does not want to be part of the old extremist duopoly which they feel is stuck in the sectarian past and does not represent their views. What this poll shows is that this group does not necessarily assume that reunification is the best way of delivering the kind of society they would like.

These voters, many of them younger and middle-class, are not entrapped by traditional tribal loyalties. For them, the challenge in the future is less about the choice between a united Ireland and remaining in the U.K. It's more about creating a modern, civilized society in the North to match other places in Europe. 

In a border poll, the outcome in the North is likely to be decided by this 20 percent in the middle who now vote Alliance or Green and not by the 40 percent unionist/40 percent nationalist opposing sides.  

Another finding in the poll that may be somewhat surprising is that, no matter what the Good Friday Agreement says, a lot of people here are nervous about the notion that all that is required for reunification is a 50 percent plus one vote in favor.  

Asked what kind of majority would be necessary to get wide acceptance by both sides in the North, over 80 percent of people polled in the south said it would need to be at least two-thirds. In the North, the figure was 74 percent. This shows how worried people across the island are by the supposition that reunification might be rammed through if there is a bare majority in favor.

The publication of the poll was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary (on Monday) of partition in Ireland. When you look at what is going on at the moment in the North, it's tempting to say how little has changed in a hundred years.  

Unionism is in despair and disarray, and the ousting of Arlene Foster as DUP leader last week will not help the situation.  

She certainly had her shortcomings, not least her tendency to be bluntly forthright about Sinn Féin. But she did try to take a middle path between the traditional hardline loyalists in her party and more moderate unionist views.  

Her main mistake was the failure to see that former British Prime Minister Theresa May's solution of keeping all the U.K. in the EU Customs Union, which would have avoided a border down the Irish Sea, was the best option for the North. Instead, she ended up depending on May’s successor, the unreliable Boris Johnson.

This led to the Protocol which Foster initially tried to defend, claiming that it offered the best of both worlds (access for the North to the U.K. and EU markets). But when the sea border started to cause problems she was undermined and had to do a complete reversal.  Her days were numbered from then on and her party dumped her mainly because they thought she was too weak on the Protocol. 

What we are left with now is a DUP that is retreating into the worst of its fundamentalist views. Getting rid of her may pacify the evangelical, extremist, No Surrender main wing of the DUP.

But they are heading down a narrowing cul de sac. Research has shown that three out of four of the votes the DUP lost in the last election went to the Alliance and the Greens, not to the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice breakaway group.  

History is likely to be kinder to Foster than some of the commentary last week. Her father, an RUC reservist, was shot in the head by the IRA on his small farm in Fermanagh in 1979 when she was eight years old, part of the ethnic cleansing by republicans along the border at the time.   

She saw him crawling back into the house with the blood pouring -- somehow he survived. When she was 16 her school bus was bombed as the IRA tried to kill its driver, a part-time Ulster Defense Regiment member. Her friend, sitting beside her, was seriously injured.

In spite of this awful personal history she did make genuine efforts in recent years to reach across the divide to Sinn Féin to make power-sharing work. That showed a generosity of spirit that went far beyond the glib exhortations about "moving on" that came from the other side. But she was hamstrung all the time by the backwoodsmen in her own party. 

Coincidentally last week there was another event that showed just how much Sinn Féin needs to "move on." This was an online tribute by Sinn Féin to mark the anniversary of the IRA gunman Seamus McElwaine who Foster believes was leader of the gang which shot her father.

McElwaine, killed by the SAS in 1986, was responsible for at least 10 murders in the Fermanagh area, most of them sectarian killings that were part of the IRA's ethnic cleansing along the border. 

The Sinn Féin member of the Dail for the adjoining Cavan Monaghan area, Matt Carthy, paid tribute to McElwaine in the online event last week, saying that "Seamus and all those who fought for Irish freedom continue to inspire us."  

That was worse than Mary Lou McDonald's recent non-apology for the Lord Mountbatten murder. It's all part of the Sinn Féin attempt to rewrite recent history by linking what was done during the 30 year IRA campaign back to the War of Independence 100 years ago in one long and glorious continuum.

It's completely bogus, of course.  What Carthy had to say was disgusting.  And it won't do anything to expand Sinn Féin's appeal to the middle class here.  

The DUP are not the only ones heading down a cul de sac. 

*This column first appeared in the May 5 edition of the Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.