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Upcoming election heralds a crisis like no other for the DUP

Unionist anxiety over the ascension of Michelle O’Neill to the rank of first minister looms large

Northern Ireland's centenary year has seen unionism at its most fractured, with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) continuing down a path toward significant election losses next year. New polling from Lucidtalk captures the spiralling downfall of the DUP, with support continuing its long-term decline from 28 per cent at the last Assembly election in 2017 to 13 per cent now. This leaves the DUP support below both the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV).

Meanwhile, the likelihood of a non-unionist party soon holding the position of first minister, for the first time since the formation of the Northern Ireland Assembly, is a huge challenge for political unionism. This unprecedented shift is a crisis like no other for the DUP – one to which the supporters of Brexit in Northern Ireland are ill-equipped to respond. It is a bitter pill to swallow for a party long-accustomed to maintaining a position of power. Lucidtalk's findings make for uncomfortable reading for Jeffrey Donaldson, newly elected as the DUP's third leader in as many months and trailing at the bottom of leadership ratings at 20 per cent.

At 14 per cent, the TUV leader may well be hoping that he can be the unionist to collapse the institutions to keep Sinn Féin out

Having spent months peddling misinformation and inflamed rhetoric to present the Northern Ireland protocol as a constitutional threat to British identity, the DUP may have inadvertently designed many of its own problems. Donaldson will know his party does not hold the political capital to drastically change the protocol, however, he will also be acutely aware that failure to remove the threat will cost at the voting booth.

As the two opposing ends of political unionism cannibalise themselves, they eat away at the base responsible for securing a unionist majority vote. As the TUV snatches up hard-line loyalists and the UUP attracts more moderate unionists, the DUP is trapped in a paradox; one which requires it to either shift further to the right, or further into the middle – both at the expense of its own identity.


Sinn Féin

There is now a strong likelihood that Sinn Féin will be returned as the largest party in the Assembly with a nine-point lead over the UUP and 12 points over the DUP in the latest poll. Despite the first minister and deputy first minister having always formed joint heads of government, keeping "themuns" out has remained the principal mantra of unionist parties. As such, unionist anxiety over the ascension of Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill to the rank of first minister looms large. This led to the petty and anti-democratic call from TUV MLA Jim Allister that, if necessary, unionists should form an alliance to try to stop Sinn Féin taking the first minister job after the elections, by ensuring the largest unionist party failed to nominate a deputy.

At 14 per cent, the TUV leader may well be hoping that he can be the unionist to collapse the institutions to keep Sinn Féin out. The problem for the TUV and its sole MLA is just that – there’s only one of him. His party suffers from a critical lack of candidates, which may result in disenfranchised loyalists and unionists staying home as a protest vote.

This next election is shaping up to be a vote capable of transforming the political landscape of this island

The Lucidtalk polling suggests the Alliance surge may be waning, with the party dropping three points to 13 per cent, signifying that moderate unionists may be returning to the UUP. The challenge for Doug Beattie will be keeping them there, with both the Alliance party and the SDLP polling within three points of his party and the slog of a gruelling election campaign ahead.

Voter turnout

Northern Ireland has an average voter turnout of 60 per cent, with many of its citizens adopting a tuned-out and switched-off relationship with politics. This political apathy is all the more ubiquitous with 18-24 year-olds. The most recent polling suggests two strong possibilities next year; that Sinn Féin will be the largest party in the Assembly, and that the DUP could be relegated to a minority unionist position. The potential of either outcome may prove appetising for those craving palatable change in Northern Ireland politics, in turn encouraging a surge in voter turnout.

As with any poll, the results have to be taken for what they are – a snapshot in time. Nevertheless, this next election is shaping up to be a vote capable of transforming the political landscape of this island. That Sinn Féin is consistently topping the polls – both North and South – is not inconsequential, and that knowledge will no doubt be playing in the minds of parties on both sides of the Border.