It is very clear from today’s results of the Ipsos poll for The Irish Times and ARINS that the Northern Ireland protocol does not enjoy majority support in the North in its current form.
But is it also clear that the most popular way forward among voters who expressed a view was for a negotiated solution that would bring about changes to the protocol and ease its implementation, rather than scrapping it entirely.
The Irish Times/ARINS North and South research project is principally concerned with establishing and evaluating attitudes to the constitutional future of the island.
ARINS, a joint research project of the Royal Irish Academy and the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame, is concerned with analysing and researching Ireland, North and South. But respondents to the simultaneous surveys in Northern Ireland and the Republic were also asked questions on some current topics, including the protocol, which has polarised opinion in the North and led to the breakdown of the power-sharing institutions set up under the Belfast Agreement.
The protocol, which was agreed by the EU and the UK government as part of the treaty that governs post-Brexit relations between them, applies some EU rules to Northern Ireland in order to avoid the necessity for checks on goods on the Border between the North and the Republic. This has led to some checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain and other friction, such as increased bureaucracy in some cases, on trade. This has angered some unionists who see the protocol as weakening the link between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
There is overwhelming support for the protocol in the Republic – 63 per cent of people say they support the protocol, with 40 per cent saying they “very strongly” support it. Almost as many (61 per cent) believe it should be implemented as agreed, with just 5 per cent saying it should be scrapped.
But it is a different picture in Northern Ireland. Only just more than a fifth of people in the North (21 per cent) say they support the protocol; 24 per cent oppose it, while 23 per cent say they “neither support nor oppose the protocol”. The biggest group is those who say they don’t know – 31 per cent.
Only 11 per cent of those from a Protestant background support it, with 37 per cent opposed.
There is a similar division on the economic benefits/disadvantages of the protocol: 31 per cent in the North agree that it is good for the economy because it gives access to both EU and UK markets, with 34 per cent saying it is bad for the economy because it is more difficult to import goods from Britain. Again, the largest group is the don’t knows (36 per cent).
There are marked differences in all the responses between voters from a Catholic background and voters of a Protestant background, demonstrating the extent to which the protocol is a polarising issue . Half of all Catholics (49 per cent) say the protocol is good for the economy, with 18 per cent saying it’s bad for the economy and don’t knows at 34 per cent; the situation is reversed for Protestants, with 51 per cent saying it is bad for the economy, 14 per cent good and 34 per cent don’t know.
One area in which there is somewhat more agreement between voters in the North and South is in who to blame for the current difficulties. Asked to name the two entities that were most to blame, just shy of two-thirds (63 per cent) of all voters in the Republic blame the British government. In Northern Ireland, the finger of blame points to London for just under half (46 per cent) of all voters.
There is also plenty of blame left for the DUP, which has blocked the formation of an executive and refused to allow the power-sharing Assembly to function in protest at the protocol. More than half of voters (52 per cent) in the Republic blame the DUP; in the North, it’s just more than a third (34 per cent). The EU is blamed by 17 per cent in the North, and just 9 per cent south of the Border.
What is to be done? The EU and the UK government, with the heavy involvement of the Irish Government, are talking again about trying to reach a negotiated solution to the impasse. Some sort of light-touch implementation of the protocol, minimising or eliminating many of the checks on goods that have irked unionists, is the most likely solution. This is the most popular course among voters in the North – 36 per cent agree with it, a number that is, remarkably, consistent across both Catholic and Protestant voters. It’s the one thing they seem to agree on.