The Northern Ireland protocol: On May 5th voters will have their say

The protocol is the most important issue for the DUP – not just for first preference votes, but for transfers

From Ballymoney to Bangor to Newbuildings and the Newtownards Road, in recent months the Northern Ireland protocol has been roundly denounced from platforms in multiple unionist heartlands.

As the Assembly election draws ever nearer, those condemnations have grown increasingly strident, with May 5th billed – by the DUP and Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) at least – as an opportunity for people to have their say on the protocol.

"Make no mistake, Sinn Féin winning this election will send a message to Dublin and Brussels, that it's business as usual with the protocol," DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson told one of those anti-protocol rallies in Newbuildings, Co Derry, last weekend. "Unionists must use their transfers to support other pro-union candidates."

A targeted appeal to the loyal sons and daughters of Ulster perhaps, but this is an election strategy intended to be heard beyond the several hundred with commitment enough to turn up at the protest on a Saturday night.

"The people of Northern Ireland have the opportunity next Thursday to remove the long shadow of the Irish Sea border by voting DUP," the party said this week, while party leader Donaldson said: "People should use their vote to send a message that the Irish Sea border should go."

Are those people listening? Perhaps not, is the answer from Friday's opinion poll from LucidTalk/The Belfast Telegraph – the last ahead of the election – which has the DUP on 20 per cent, only one percentage point up compared to March.

Its anti-protocol rivals, the TUV, are static on nine, and Sinn Féin – bidding to replace the DUP as the largest party – similarly immovable on 26. The Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance are on 14, and the SDLP 10.

So why the DUP focus on the protocol, if it appears not to be yielding dividends? That same poll indicates three-quarters of TUV voters and 52 per cent of UUP voters will give a second preference to the DUP.

It is all about the transfers, says David McCann, deputy editor of the Northern Ireland political website Slugger O’Toole. “If you’re looking to coalesce that anti-protocol vote behind you it’s useful to remind voters that the DUP has a different position, what might be considered a slightly more conservative position on the protocol than the Ulster Unionists, so in the battle, those kind of preferences from the TUV – that’s why you would bring up the protocol.”

Overall, the protocol was the fourth most important issue to voters (32 per cent of respondents put it in their top three) behind the future of the NHS, the state of the economy and the constitutional future of Northern Ireland

But this is not their only argument. “The DUP have two different pitches going out there,” he points out. “If you’re a voter and you don’t care about the protocol anyway, the DUP talking about the protocol isn’t really going to move your vote, but the DUP are [also] talking about childcare or other cost of living issues – and DUP are putting out as many messages about the cost of living as they are about the protocol.”

Key issue

Figures show that, for the overwhelming majority of people, the protocol is not a key issue. According to February’s “Testing the Temperature” survey by Queen’s University, Belfast (QUB) – which asks voters in Northern Ireland what they think about the protocol – when presented with 10 issues, only 9 per cent selected the effects of the protocol as most important to them.

Overall, the protocol was the fourth most important issue to voters (32 per cent of respondents put it in their top three) behind the future of the NHS, the state of the economy and the constitutional future of Northern Ireland.

But consider only those voters who regard themselves as “strongly unionist”; and 20 per cent chose the protocol as their most important issue, and 31 per cent their second. To be strong on the protocol, therefore, is to make a direct appeal to these voters.

“The protocol does matter to unionist voters across the board,” says barrister and former DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly, “but like in any aspect of life, people are not entirely binary.

“If you said to me, am I worried about the protocol, absolutely, but of course I’m also worried and concerned and want a better health service, I want an education system that works, I want an economy that works.”

Hence, she says, the five-point plan put forward by Jeffrey Donaldson. “When you look at the DUP’s approach in this election, the protocol is one of those five issues, but the majority of those issues are about those other factors that matter to people as well.”

A separate study from the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool and the Irish News also puts the health and the economy ahead of the protocol, even for unionist voters; figures from Prof Peter Shirlow for February, March and April put the percentage of unionists who said the protocol was the most important issue for them at 12, 21 and 13 per cent respectively.

When asked about dealing with the protocol, more than 70 per cent of unionists either agreed or strongly agreed that Executive parties should jointly seek mitigations and easements from the European Union, while only 6 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed – figures which, on the face of it, would appear to chime more with the Ulster Unionist (UUP) position that issues around the protocol "can and will be dealt with" rather than the stance of the DUP or TUV.

Hard Border

Unionists oppose the part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement which avoided a hard Border on the island of Ireland by placing a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea, arguing that it has caused economic harm and undermined NI’s constitutional position as an integral part of the UK.

Beyond unionism's battles lies a broader contest. Which party will win the most seats, and with them the position of first minister?

Yet in early 2021, the then DUP leader, Arlene Foster, went from extolling the opportunities of the protocol to leading the charge to have it scrapped; the abrupt about-turn was triggered by a poll that showed an increase in popularity for the TUV and Alliance and which spooked it into emphasising its pro-union, anti-protocol credentials.

More than a year on and the DUP has largely given up trying to woo back those who might have drifted to Alliance. Instead, its strategy is defensive – to appeal to its traditional base, try to keep disparate elements within unionism and loyalism on board and see off the TUV challenge; even if the polls are right and the largest party is beyond them, this would at least deliver a commanding majority within unionism and the bargaining power needed for the negotiations postelection.

Beyond unionism’s battles lies a broader contest. Which party will win the most seats, and with them the position of first minister? Beyond this again are even more fundamental questions – about whether an Executive will be formed and, potentially, about the very future of the power-sharing institutions.

For all the apparent gulf between the DUP and Sinn Féin in the polls, Alex Kane, unionist commentator and former UUP director of communications, believes the final tally will be close – hence the DUP's emphasis on "pro-union transfers".

In this context, the framing of the question – articulated by Donaldson as whether voters want to focus on “fixing our health system, tackling the cost-of-living crisis and replacing the protocol” or a “divisive Border poll” is, says Kane, about “rallying the troops.

‘Really spooked’

“When Martin McGuinness was alive, unionism was really spooked because of his background [in the IRA], so the DUP were very successfully able to play the ‘if you don’t vote for us you’ll end up with Martin McGuinness’ card.

“This is why the Border poll has come into it. He [Donaldson] knows there’s no chance on earth that Sinn Féin [winning] the vote will make a damn bit of difference to a Border poll or the calling of it … but it’s the new spook … if Sinn Féin become the largest party that means a Border poll.”

Donaldson has roundly rejected this yet, says Kane, the DUP leader has little option. A section of unionism think the protocol is “their fault, the DUP made this mess” through their propping up of the Westminster government, but that he also knows that “unionists, even people like me” do have difficulties with the protocol,” he says.

“The protocol does rattle me in one sense simply because it’s changed the nature of the relationship between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and me as a unionist and the rest of it, but to be honest, I will learn to live with that.”

"It's not rocket science," says Brian Dougherty, chief executive of the North West Cultural Partnership, a group of pro-union cultural organisations. "When it comes to elections, often parties go into that binary narrative and the DUP and TUV in particular haven't shied away from that.

“It’s been ‘a vote for us is a vote for saving the union – the irony being that even Sinn Féin have pulled away recently from pushing the constitutional issue.”

But this time, he says, things are different. “The reality on the ground, more so that I can remember recently – maybe even since the Good Friday agreement – is that it’s the first time I’ve heard unionists at all levels saying we’re sick and tired of this, we’ve heard enough of this, there are other issues on the ground that are far more prevalent.”

Daily lives

But the protocol is one of those issues, believes one DUP canvasser, arguing that it is impacting on their daily lives because they can no longer import goods for their businesses or fear they will have to let the employees go because of it.

Asked this week if unionists and loyalists raised the protocol with her candidates on the doorsteps, Alliance Party leader Naomi Long disagreed. In her pro-Brexit and overwhelmingly unionist constituency it has been mentioned five times. Five times.

On May 5th, the voters will make their choice.