New poll in Northern Ireland shows Trimble may have swung it with a little help from his friends

 

The roller-coaster ride continues. It is a story of action, reaction and counter-reaction. The first Irish Times/MRBI poll on the Belfast Agreement was conducted in the heady aftermath of Good Friday and showed 73 per cent for a Yes vote, with 14 per cent against and 13 per cent undecided.

Although the nationalist community held firm, when unionists had been given more time to consider what had been agreed in their name some took fright and others were assailed by doubt.

The triumphant appearance by the Balcombe Street prisoners at the Sinn Fein ardfheis seemed to confirm their worst fears, and the poll conducted shortly after that event registered 56 per cent Yes, 25 per cent No, and 19 per cent undecided.

Disaster loomed for the Yes camp and for the Ulster Unionist leader, Mr David Trimble, in particular. With a little help from the British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, and President Bill Clinton, he seems to have stemmed the tide and steadied the nerves of his supporters.

Thus the latest figures show the undecided voters falling four points, with the Yes camp as the beneficiary. The latest figures are: Yes, 60 per cent; No, 25 per cent; and Undecided, 15 per cent.

In what might be called the post-Balcombe Street poll last week, voting intentions among the unionist parties were as follows: Yes, 35 per cent; No, 45 per cent; and 20 per cent undecided. Eliminating the undecided meant unionists were opposing the deal on a 55-45 basis.

The appearance by the loyalist paramilitary, Michael Stone, at an Ulster Democratic Party rally in Belfast's Ulster Hall probably worsened these figures from the viewpoint of Mr Trimble.

But his exertions and the efforts of Mr Blair seem to have paid off because the tide has been reversed. The unionist figures as of Monday and Tuesday this week, when the current poll was taken, are as follows: Yes, 40 per cent; No, 43 per cent, and Undecided, 17 per cent.

This yields a net figure, eliminating the undecided, of Yes, 48 per cent and No, 52 per cent. If the overall poll figures are reflected in tomorrow's referendum, Mr Trimble will no doubt claim to be within the "comfort zone", even though anti-agreement campaigners have said that an overall No vote of 26 per cent or higher means a majority of unionists are opposed to the deal.

Moves towards a rapprochement between Jeffrey Donaldson and Mr Trimble early this week may have helped to firm up support for the agreement.

This poll was compiled before the joint appearance by Mr Trimble and the SDLP leader, Mr John Hume, with the rock bands U2 and Ash at Belfast's Waterfront Hall. There has been a focus on younger voters by the Yes campaign, and judging from results in the 18-24 age group this has paid off. The latest figures in this category (with last week's results in brackets) are: Yes, 50 (39); No, 21 (33); Undecided 30 (28).

In the Protestant community, a category which is of course mainly pro-Union and would include many of the Alliance Party's supporters, there is now a majority in favour of the agreement, judging from this week's net figures.

The results in this category (last week's in brackets) are: Yes, 42 (36) per cent; No, 40 (40) per cent and Undecided, 18 (24) per cent. This yielded a net result of Yes, 51 (47) per cent and No, 49 (53) per cent.

Among Ulster Unionist Party supporters the figures for the two polls are: Yes, 59 (52) per cent; No, 19 (19) per cent; Undecided, 22 (30) per cent. Net figures in this category are: Yes, 76 (73) per cent and No, 24 (27) per cent.

The decision of the Sinn Fein ardfheis to support the agreement, North and South, has sunk in with the party's supporters. The figures in this category are: Yes, 97 (83) per cent; No, 0 (3) per cent; Undecided, 3 (14) per cent. SDLP supporters are holding firm at 96 per cent for a Yes vote, the same figure as last week.

The area of Northern Ireland which is least enthusiastic about the agreement is the north-east, where it garners the support of only 47 (50) per cent of respondents compared with 68 (58) per cent in Belfast and 69 (68) per cent in the western region, including the city of Derry (previous week's figures in brackets).

Respondents were asked which party they would give their first preference vote to in the assembly election and the figures showed little movement since last week: SDLP 23 (24); UUP 22 (23); DUP 11 (14); Sinn Fein 6 (7); UK Unionists 6 (3); Alliance 5 (6); PUP 1 (2); UDP 1 (1); Labour 1 (2); Women's Coalition 0 (1); Workers' Party 0 (1); Other 10 (8); Would not Vote 2 (2) Don't Know 19 (14); Refused 1 (2).

The SDLP continues to attract the highest level of support, with Ulster Unionists more or less steady and the Democratic Unionists dropping three points.

The high profile of the UK Unionist leader, Mr Robert McCartney, may have helped that party to double its support level, pushing it one point ahead of Alliance. Sinn Fein's vote has dropped one point, and its level of support continues to be far below recent electoral showings.

The overall picture shows a static No vote, suggesting the campaign against the agreement may have peaked. Certainly it has not had the benefit of further major gaffes on the part of Dublin and the Northern Ireland Office, since the Balcombe Street and Michael Stone releases.

The negative poll figures last week seem to have acted as a wake-up call for Yes supporters, particular in the UUP but also in London and Dublin. Mr Blair booked his passage back to Northern Ireland, and Dublin kept the lowest profile it could, in common with the SDLP and Sinn Fein. It has been a tense and fraught campaign: the No lobby was well prepared, slick and professional; Yes supporters only turned their thoughts to the task in hand once the agreement itself had been concluded.

At this stage it looks as if the late rally led by David Trimble and Tony Blair may have done the trick.