by Frank Schnittger
Sun Aug 29th, 2021 at 09:35:01 PM EST
It is not my practice to write stories based on a single opinion poll, but polls in N. Ireland are few and far between and are currently of additional significance because they give a snapshot of the parties current standing ahead of Assembly elections which must take place by next May. The next assembly is due to vote on the continuance of the Northern Ireland Protocol in 2024, and so its significance extends to Ireland and the EU in general.
The DUP used to average somewhere in the mid-30's prior to Brexit but is now down to 13% behind Sinn Fein on 25%, the Ulster Unionist party (UUP) 16%, the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) 14%, with the SDLP and Alliance also on 13% each. If translated into votes, it means Sinn Fein is on track to take the First Minster role with the UUP likely to take the deputy first Minister role. This is a hugely symbolic blow to Unionism which has always controlled the top job in N. Ireland politics, even if the distinction between the First and deputy first Minster roles is largely symbolic. In practice, the Executive cannot function without both.
Of more significance is that the pro-protocol parties: Sinn Fein, SDLP, Alliance, Greens and People before Profit (PBP) control about 55% of the vote. Given that the election will be conducted using a Single Transferable Vote multi-seat proportional representation system, it is even possible on these numbers that Alliance will take the Deputy First Minister role, as they are likely to receive more lower preference transfers of votes than the more extreme parties and thus may win more seats.
This could provoke the unionists to boycott the assembly altogether, as they are simply not used to being in a minority position in the province. It does not mean, however, that there might be an imminent majority for a united Ireland: The Alliance party, while moderate on policy, is firmly in the pro-union, pro-status quo camp. But they were pro-remaining in the EU, and are now pro making the protocol work to the advantage of N. Ireland, given that it enables N. Ireland firms to have access to both the UK internal and EU Single markets. A poll using the same methodology shows majority support for the Union with Britain at 49% to 42%.
If one looks at the trend in polls since the last Assembly elections, it is clear that the election of Geoffrey Donaldson to replace Edwin Poots as leader has not yet arrested the slide in the DUP vote. Most of the lost DUP votes have gone to the hardline TUV which lacks prominent candidates beyond their leader Jim Allister. There is also a small bounce for the UUP under their new and more moderate leader Doug Beattie. Sinn Fein and the SDLP are flat-lining on 25% and 13% respectively, but they have a demographic wind in their sails with age breakdowns (not yet available for this poll) generally showing them doing much better among younger voters and those only just coming of voting age.
If there is a slight concern from a pro-protocol point of view, it is that alliance are some way off their all time high of 18% last January, and are currently on 13% support. That is still considerably better that their 9% showing in the last legislative Assembly elections in 2017. However there is no room for complacency in the pro-protocol camp. Alliance may come under a lot of pressure from unionist parties to change their pro-protocol stance and may wish to fudge their position on he issue by calling for "reform" where practical difficulties are experienced. There will also be heavy pressure from the near monopoly UK supermarket chains who don't want to change their supply chains to route their supplies via Ireland and the EU.
But the market is making those decisions for them with North South trade expanding rapidly while east west trade between Britain and Ireland declining. As noted in The dog that didn't bark,
Imports from Northern Ireland to the Republic have risen from 1.0 Billion to 1.8 Billion or 77 per cent in the first six months since the UK left the EU at the start of the year, while the value of exports from the Republic to the North has risen by 43 per cent. Exports from Ireland to Britain are up 20 per cent in the first six months to 6.7 billion, but imports have collapsed by 32 per cent to 5.3 billion.
Overall, Irish imports from Britain have declined from 20 per cent of total imports in the first half of 2019 to just 11 per cent now. The increase in the share of Irish imports coming from Northern Ireland , meanwhile, has increased from 2.6 per cent to 3.7 per cent over the same period.
So from a British point of view the battle over the protocol is about trying to maintain a dominant position in the economy of Ireland, North and South, a battle which is currently being lost rather dramatically. Unionists are concerned about Ireland being re-united economically by stealth, but they only have themselves to blame: It was their Brexit and their ally, Boris Johnson, who imposed Brexit upon the people of Northern Ireland against the wishes of a 56-44% majority who voted for Remain. Brexit will forever be an albatross hung around the DUP's neck.