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Polls show Unionism in disarray, as two-thirds back a border poll

Of course, fourth place does not even merit a podium spot.

Not a point about the Paralympics, you understand, merely a reflection on this weekend’s LucidTalk opinion poll for the Belfast Telegraph, which has the Democratic Unionists not only trailing Sinn Fein by a massive 12 points, but also dragging along behind the other two main unionist parties as well.

This is a disaster for the DUP’s new leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who only took over at the end of June, following the party’s brief flirtation with the hapless Edwin Poots, who had taken over at the end of May. 2021.

If you can remember that far back, you will recall there was concern in party ranks that Arlene Foster’s credibility had collapsed, following her slavish devotion to Boris Johnson and his Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, which lumbered them with the Northern Ireland Protocol and sent the DUP’s share price tumbling.

All said, Foster’s tenure is beginning to look like a golden age in comparison to the current fiasco.

Donaldson can sense the icy water rising over the bulkheads. The DUP is going down to an historic defeat in next May’s elections to the Northern Ireland assembly, losing the First Minister’s job in the process. Can they turn the situation around in time?

Although tempting to write them off, the DUPpers are a pretty resilient lot. Donaldson is a political professional, which is to say he’s at least an adult in the room. He knows the party is bleeding votes in all directions, notably to the rejuvenated Ulster Unionists under Doug Beattie and to Jim Allister’s neo-Paisleyite Traditional Unionist Voice. 

A veritable smorgasbord of options, then, for the discerning reactionary, with Alliance waiting to scoop up unionists of a more liberal disposition.

And while the unionist vote splinters, Sinn Fein – polling consistently – remains on-course to emerge as the largest party in May’s elections by default.

So, Donaldson has his work cut out, or so you would think.

Yet just this week he accepted a new role as the UK’s trade ambassador to Cameroon (he already has Egypt under his belt) and shows no sign of relinquishing his seat in Westminster and switching to Stormont to take up the First Minister’s role.

Quite what signal ‘Three Jobs Jeffrey’ is sending out, from the green leather benches of the House of Commons, is anyone’s guess. The optics, as they say in the US, are not good.

Out of tune with the temper of the times as they so often are, the DUP’s biggest headache remains their neglect in allowing opposition to the protocol to harden into an article of faith, allowing loyalist corner boys to set the terms of debate, yelling betrayal, or worse, at the DUP for getting them into this mess.

Rhetoric about ‘scrapping’ the protocol is just that. At best there may be some cosmetic changes to make it more palatable, with shrewder watchers of the game within the DUP surely recognising they are now in take it or leave it territory as far as the EU is concerned.

Those of us that consistently warned that the British Government would cut a deal that left Northern Ireland partway inside the EU, will be excused a moment to say, ‘I told you so.’

But only for a moment; a destabilised Unionism is bad for business and emboldens the loyalist fringe. In response, Donaldson needs to show that he wants the job, lead from the front, accept some token concessions on the protocol, sell them hard, and push back against Beattie and Allister.

Nevertheless, there was more bad news for him in this morning’s Observer newspaper, with a poll showing two-thirds of people in Northern Ireland back holding a border poll.

Opinions vary about when, of course, and the positive for unionists is that 49% of voters still back the constitutional status quo. (Despite their party differences, they still gel when it comes to the national question).

But this still represents a minority of opinion, with 42% now supporting Irish unity, leaving just nine per cent of voters that are undecided.

Meanwhile, the takeaway for a British reader is unmistakeable; Northern Ireland is on the way out.

Every time this issue pops up under the noses of MPs, commentators, and the British public, the more acclimatised they will become with the prospect of it happening. While movement towards a border poll is now ‘inexorable’ according to former Labour Secretary of State, Peter Hain.

So, all to play for, with Unionism in disarray and just seven points between the two constitutional positions before a whistle has even been blown.

Kevin Meagher is the author of ‘What A Bloody Awful Country: Northern Ireland’s Century of Division’