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Newton Emerson: SF, DUP want to avoid Stormont collapse after gauging popular mood

Any public concern about protocol will be focused on stability of Stormont

People in Northern Ireland are evenly split and deeply polarised over the Brexit protocol, it has been reported this week, following research by Queen’s University. Support for the protocol is at 43 per cent, contrary to nationalist insistence it has majority backing. Opposition is at 48 per cent, strengthening unionist claims they can vote parts of the protocol down when the Assembly gets its first chance to do so in 2024.

Three-quarters of people said the protocol would be a factor in how they vote in the next Assembly election, with four in 10 prepared to change who they vote for on the issue.

This is the second set of results from a three-year Queen’s University project examining the ‘”governance of implementing the protocol”. Polling company LucidTalk has been commissioned to conduct surveys every four months using its online panel of respondents.

The first results, published in April, were identical to this week’s within the margin of error. Another LucidTalk poll in April, commissioned by the BBC, found 46 per cent support for the protocol and 48 per cent wanting it “scrapped”.



However, a strikingly different set of results has emerged from the latest Northern Ireland Life and Times (NILT) survey. Conducted annually since 1998 by Queen’s University and Ulster University, and involving some of the same research team as the governance project, it uses a randomised sample of the adult population.

The NILT findings could be characterised as evenly split but deeply ambivalent.

There was 16 per cent support for the protocol and 18 per cent opposition. The largest response, 46 per cent, was agreement with the statement “the protocol is a mixed bag”. The remaining fifth of respondents had no opinion on the protocol – presumably the same fifth who admitted in a separate question to having never heard of it. Another quarter said they had heard of the protocol but knew nothing about it.

There was no trace of this vast indifference in the LucidTalk survey. Of the forty questions it asked, ‘don’t knows’ were all in the range of 0-4 per cent.

NILT has been criticised by nationalists for producing implausibly low support for a united Ireland – 30 per cent in this year’s report. Its results are used by government, a fact blamed for putting off nationalist respondents.

Unionists criticise LucidTalk for producing implausibly high support for a united Ireland - 43 per cent in the BBC poll. They blame the panel method for over-representing the ‘politically engaged’, as people have to actively sign up for it, rather than being approached by post as with NILT.

A statistical debate on the constitutional question will never end but everyone might agree on why the protocol findings differ. It seems straightforward that a methodology where people volunteer their participation will produce stronger opinions than sampling the population at random.

NILT conducted its fieldwork in the final three months of 2020, while LucidTalk’s work for Queen’s began this March. The protocol only came into operation in the new year, which might explain a hardening of public attitudes – but not to the extent turned up between the polls. The protocol was a subject of fraught debate in the closing months of 2020, with trade talks going to the wire and the prospect of no deal threatening much higher sea border barriers.

There was relief and celebration when this was resolved. Grace periods for the first three months of this year ensured few issues. The DUP only reversed its support for the protocol when another LucidTalk poll in February showed it losing votes to Alliance and the Traditional Unionist Voice. It must be asked if online polling can be as destabilising as the issues it surveys.

While there is no doubt Northern Ireland can argue bitterly over details, the tedious arcana of phytosanitary inspections remains an improbable focus for public passion.

Anti-protocol protests

Loyalist rioting this Easter was about an IRA rally. The anti-protocol protests held since, attracting a few thousand people in large unionist towns, mainly involve the same 300-500 core participants. Sinn Féin-linked protests against a hard border were a similarly-sized travelling circus.

It seems fair to guess most nationalists are annoyed about Brexit, most unionists are annoyed about the protocol, but everyone is mostly observing how events pan out. There is an awareness this is constitutionally unsettling, yet also an awareness of everyone’s hypocrisy: unionists refusing to admit fault; nationalists claiming the protocol reduces nobody’s Britishness then adding it heralds a united Ireland. We are all trained from the cradle to spot this duplicity in each other, yet also to find ourselves ridiculous.

Any widespread public concern about the protocol will be focused on the stability of Stormont. In the Alliance surge, the electorate demonstrated it wants politics conducted through successful devolution and will punish any party that plays constitutional games against that goal.

That is why Sinn Féin and the DUP, despite grandstanding over the protocol or language legislation, are clearly determined to avoid another Stormont collapse.

Neither may be pollsters, but they are strongly motivated to gauge the popular mood.