Northern Ireland now has its own version of Henry Kissinger's question "who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?"
Who do you call if you want to speak to unionism?
The official answer is DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, but a poll last week by Belfast company LucidTalk has his party on 13 per cent, behind the UUP on 16 per cent and the TUV (always described as "the hardline TUV") on 14 per cent.
The SDLP and Alliance were also on 13 per cent. The closeness of these numbers has thrown an extra spotlight on LucidTalk’s online panel polling method. Even within the poll’s margin of error the parties could be in almost any other order, although all with Sinn Féin in an unassailable lead at 25 per cent.
Donaldson has been positive and pragmatic in his tactics on the protocol, engaging with the Irish Government as he did last week (albeit with pompous rhetoric)
However, to a large extent what matters is not the precise accuracy of the poll but that the DUP finds its trends all too plausible. A LucidTalk poll in February first revealed the DUP’s vote falling away to the TUV and Alliance. Panic over how to regain voters heading off in opposite directions caused the leadership crisis that ended with Donaldson’s coronation.
The latest poll confirms the trend to the TUV but suggests liberal unionists are moving to the UUP, which is even worse for Donaldson. Alliance does not aspire to be considered the largest unionist party. The UUP appears on course to regain that mantle for the first time in two decades.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the polling trends sustained this year is that the unionist electorate is unfazed by the prospect of losing the post of first minister to Sinn Féin. The DUP could once have counted on this to rally support – it engineered the race for that purpose by changing Stormont’s rules at St Andrews in 2006.
Unionist voters now evidently prioritise internal political change, and specifically punishing the DUP, over the symbolic inter-community beauty contest of who holds the equal offices of first or deputy first minister. This is a healthy sign for unionism and Northern Ireland politics overall.
Naturally, the DUP will not take this lying down. Donaldson has been positive and pragmatic in his tactics on the protocol, engaging with the Irish Government as he did last week (albeit with pompous rhetoric) and trying to stake a claim on whatever mitigations the UK and EU agree in the coming months. Then again, the DUP has little choice but to be pragmatic on the protocol as it is so widely blamed for it.
A more assertive appeal to the unionist electorate was demonstrated by Donaldson this week in response to a report on policing in South Armagh.
PSNI management conducted the report after nationalist complaints in 2019 when chief constable Simon Byrne was photographed with armed officers outside Crossmaglen's heavily-fortified police station.
The report contains 50 recommendations for normalising policing in the area, including the deeply painful move of concealing memorials to murdered officers. However, Donaldson has focused his condemnation on the proposals for PSNI-Garda co-operation, cross-border hot pursuit laws and joint patrols, claiming “the end goal of this report is the creation of all-Ireland policing structures”.
He has vowed to block the legal changes the report requires at the executive – a veto requiring the DUP to be the largest unionist party.
A healthy scepticism for the protocol and the EU is compatible with pro-Remain and even pro-protocol sentiment
In truth, cross-border policing co-operation is routine and more of it in south Armagh threatens only the IRA. An EU-wide plan for hot pursuit laws was quietly dropped in 2007 over concerns in London and Dublin that it would halt Sinn Féin’s slow crawl towards recognising the PSNI.
By going along with hysterical loyalist reaction to the report as a republican plot, the DUP seems to think it has found a negative hot-button issue for the broad unionist population. It is also a great distraction from Brexit. The quest for further such issues may become increasingly desperate and divisive.
Beyond unionism, the other significant development in the poll is the end of the Alliance surge. As the surge was a response to the collapse of Stormont, it might have been expected to suffer a setback with devolution’s return.
The LucidTalk numbers suggest new UUP leader Doug Beattie is luring unionist-background voters away from Alliance, mainly with his liberal stance on social issues. It must be asked how much Alliance is pushing unionists away with its enthusiasm for the protocol and general Europhilia.
A healthy scepticism for the protocol and the EU is compatible with pro-Remain and even pro-protocol sentiment. This is probably the baseline instinct of the 40 per cent of unionists who opposed Brexit in the 2016 referendum. Many others will have wearily come to the same view since.
It is a disaster for unionism to be alienated from Alliance and the centrist bloc that will decide Northern Ireland’s future. It is also a disaster for Alliance, which now may never grow large enough to deliver the surge’s promise of a completely new political order.