Inter communal consensus to get NI Protocol done, backing for the Assembly (but not a border poll)

On tonight’s edition of The View, there’s some fascinating polling from the Irish Institute at the University of Liverpool. Fascinating mostly for the depth it goes into over how public opinion falls out over the Northern Irish protocol.

For one thing, it turns out that whilst it may be exercising some members of the political class it’s not the top priority for for the electorate. Overall Health is top (29.1%), Covid Recovery is next (18.3%) followed by the Economy (12.4%).

The Protocol is a top for just 9.1% and second for 10.9%. So should Stormont collapse before the next elections? The consensus is against against that idea, even amongst TUV voters.

Remarkable consensus in favour of doing a deal

Amongst DUP voters 62.2% agree that the institutions should stay in place until next May, whilst 19.5% don’t knows. Just 12.8% want it to crash.  When don’t knows and neither are excluded you get 82.9%.

What’s even more interesting is when you look at the figures for TUV voters, 48.9% say leave Stormont to run, and just 35.5% pretty much for pulling it down now. When don’t knows and neither are excluded you get 57.8% for keeping it.

The interesting crunch in this polling though is the verdict on the protocol and its amendments. These show a large consensus in favour of the progress that has already been made in almost all measures already taken.

On the EU proposed solution (SPS) for food, plant and animal health, the DUP’s voters are 40.2% in favour with 36.6% against and some 23.3% who say they don’t know. Excluding don’t knows, this limps to a majority of 52.3%

UUP and TUV voters balance towards unacceptable. The former only barely (42.3% to 41.3%), but TUV opinion is hugely against (62.2% to 26.7%). The UUP has lowest number of DKs [and the highest proportion of farmers? – Ed].

On the UK proposal that goods should circulate without checks on their movement into and within Northern Ireland 74.7% agreed. 13.4% neither agreed or disagreed, less than 10% (7.2%) disagreed with 4.7% stating they did not know.

In fact, some 69.5% of SF and 72.5% of SDLP voters agreed with the UK government’s proposal (ie, it’s not actually been agreed to yet). Of all the parties the two held to have handled the dispute best have been Alliance and the SDLP.

Overall the survey indicates that there is huge scope for some form of popular compromise, without forcing another crisis by either hastily downing Stormont or prematurely calling Article 16.

DUP punctures as Sinn Féin loses gas

The DUP remain the dominant unionist party at 20.6% (down 7.5%) with Sinn Fein just ahead on 23.5% (down 4.4%).  The UUP and TUV  are on 13.0% (up 0.1%) and 5.6% (up 3%) respectively. That’s a drop in the Unionist vote of 4.4%.

With the SDLP dropping a marginal 0.5% and allowing for margins of error, that’s a similar drop for nationalism overall. So where’s it all going? Simple answer is Alliance on 17.3% (up 8.2%) and the Greens 3.9% (up 1.2%).

As pointed out before, this is the key change in the Northern Irish demographics. Both nationalism and unionism are shrinking consistently if not rapidly then at roughly the same rate leaving unionism as the slightly larger bloc.

According to this poll the neither unionist or nationalist party vote continues to sit comfortably at or above the 20% line. What’s interesting is that most of that increase appears to derive from haemorrhages from both the DUP and Sinn Féin.

It suggests the gap between the DUP and Sinn Féin is not as great as previously thought; and that the Alliance surge is now an established factor in the Northern Irish political scene. It’s the biggest in terms shift we’ve seen in years.

Traditionally stronger in Unionists areas, we might expect to see the biggest shift in areas like Lagan Valley, North Down, South Belfast and Strangford. But lent votes from SF may see them become competitive in places we’ve not seen before.

Plenty of Border Poll talk but there’s no Border Poll in sight

I’ll start by quoting what the report itself identifies as the highlights:

  • Regarding constitutional preference, 58.6% of respondents support remaining in the UK compared to 29.8% who would vote tomorrow for a United Ireland.
  • When removing those who do not know or who would not vote in a border poll, the share who wish to remain in the UK rises to 66.2%.
  • The highest share of support for remaining in the UK sits among those aged 60+ (74.6%) with similar shares among those aged 36-59 (55%) and those under 36 (54%).
  • Females (12.5%) were nearly 3 times more likely than males (4.9%) to state that they did not know which way they would vote if a border poll was held tomorrow. 11.6% of the overall sample declared that they did not know how they would vote.

Now that’s in line with what the Life and Times Surveys say. But it contains some odd wrinkles which might very likely un-wrinkle should an an actual border poll take place. For instance, 9.4% of SF voters want to stay in the UK.

Some 3.7% of DUP voters want a United Ireland. These are likely socially conservative Catholics who’ve moved to the DUP for moral rather than out and out constitutional reasons. Nearly a third of SDLP voters want to stay in the UK.

Of those in the neither Unionist or Nationalist camp 52.4% say they’re for the Union, whilst 24.9% would vote for a UI. 15.9% say they don’t know which way they would vote. A large chunk of the “Remain UK” vote no longer vote Unionist.

Don’t misinterpret these figures. If someone says they’re not a unionist, they aren’t one. But this survey distinguishes between unionists and Remain UK. Remain is a much more about preference and far less about identity.

It includes nearly 10% of those who vote SF and a third of SDLP voters who can adopt that position and still be counted as nationalist voters. That usefully cuts the pebble in two and allows us to see the internal contours of voters lives.

Turns out Nationalist voters are far less hung up about living on the UK than the politicians they vote for, possibly because they live in a world where unionist voters are their friends/neighbours/workmates.

These figures are potentially more volatile under campaign conditions. But ‘resting’ there is no appetite for change particularly with Brexit almost completed and a hard border in the rearview mirror.

Unionism is now far less popular than the Union itself

As the survey’s report notes:

…a long-term drift from unionist parties by those who wish to remain in the UK. A significant share who are pro-Union intend to vote Alliance, abstain or are undecided concerning voting in 2022.

This fits in with previous research that concerned socially liberal pro-Union members of the electorate feeling that unionist political parties did not represent their values and commitments.

What we are observing, compared to 2017 is a static performance by the UUP and SDLP, some overall decline among unionist parties and the emergence of Alliance as the 3rd largest party in terms of voting intentions. [Emphasis added]

In summary

  • The DUP has taken the biggest hammering (losing a 1/3 of their 2017 support and thought to put in the worst shift over the protocol (just 27% approval). But they may not be as far behind Sinn Féin as widely thought.
  • No one really wants the DUP to carry out its threat to collapse the institutions including DUP and TUV voters.
  • There’s broad welcome at the progress in the negotiations over the protocol and a sense that voters of all parties want easement on East West trade.
  • Despite all the rich publicity there’s no clamour for a border poll with 1/3 of SDLP voters saying they’re okay in the UK. But the future of the union now lies with voters who no longer vote for unionist parties.
  • Those who vote for ‘Other” parties split 52% to 25% in favour of staying in the Union. So unionism as a political creed is now far less popular than the de facto union itself is.
  • Unionism and nationalism are declining at the same pace, leaving the once tiny Alliance party within the margin of error of the DUP who themselves are not that far behind Sinn Féin, as the third most popular party.

Last word to Professor Peter Shirlow:

It is evident that respondents seek proportionality in North-South and East-West trade relationships. There is no evidence here of mass rejection, even among unionists, of the mitigations/easements advanced by the EU. Similarly, there is no nationalist/republican rejection of key UK government proposals. This is not what is assumed within media and political commentary.

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