Just a few belated thoughts on that University of Liverpool/ Irish News poll from last week. To recap, it had Sinn Fein leading the pack on 23.2%, with the DUP on 19.4%. Alliance was third with 15.6%. The Ulster Unionists were on 14%, the SDLP on 9.9%, with Traditional Unionist Voice on 6.4%, just ahead of the Greens on 6.3%.
1. Beware all polls
Never trust political opinion polls. If you do, they will break your heart. And, as any pollster will tell you, they merely represent a snapshot of opinion at a particular time, not an immutable truth. Opinion can change, and we are still 10 weeks away from the assembly elections.
A lot of water will flow down the Lagan in that time. And there is a specific problem in accurately predicting Northern Irish political results. The balance between the elected and their electors is finely calibrated. In short, there are lots of parties for what is a small electorate. While a fifth of voters remain undecided about who they will back. It means that the shifting allegiances of even a few thousand people can have a material effect on the result.
The fieldwork for this poll was conducted by a Belfast company called Social Market Research (SMR). I’ve left it a few days to check, but at the time of writing, it has not posted the detailed tables on its website for stat wonks to pore over. Neither is it a member of the British Polling Council, which insists that its 28 member companies publish such polls in a timely manner. (As Belfast pollster, LucidTalk, which is a member, does routinely).
None of which is to question the veracity of SMR’s findings, which may be entirely accurate; or were accurate on the day; or might be completely wrong. Just like all polls.
We will find out soon enough, I guess.
2. The Shinners can take nothing for granted
The big story emerging from the poll, and splashed across the front page of the Irish News, was that Sinn Fein is on-course to emerge as the largest party in the assembly for the first time, entitling it to the First Minister’s position.
But hang on, such talk is premature. The margin between SF and the DUP is just four points in this poll (half the gap in LucidTalk’s poll last month). The margin of error is 3%. See the problem? There is still all to play for.
3. TUV is toast
If this poll is correct, then Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice is a wreck. It has them on 6.4% – half the level of support that LucidTalk tracks them on in its latest survey.
Hard to fathom who will be more pleased, Sinn Fein or the DUP. Anyway, it could not happen to a nicer person, and hopefully confirms that, for all his apocalyptic rhetoric about the protocol, unionist voters simply are not listening to Allister. Which is a very good thing.
4. Unionist voters are not that bothered about the Northern Ireland Protocol
Indeed, despite the incessant doom-mongering of Unionist politicians and their corner boy ensemble, the protocol is the dog that is not barking with unionist voters.
Just 11.7% of them ranked it as their main concern in the elections (with just 6.7% of all respondents). A startling mismatch between where the political noise is coming from and where the actual electorate resides.
In fact, unionists put concerns over the health service, the economy and recovering from covid as their top three issues (in the same order, incidentally, as nationalist voters).
5. Alliance is fast running out of fig leaves
The Alliance Party is lucky to have Naomi Long as its leader. Smart and likeable, she’s also quietly courageous and has successfully positioned this once fringe outfit as the third party of Northern Irish politics.
Unlike her dreary predecessors, David Ford and John Allerdice, who were basically unionists with a yellow rather than orange rosette, Long has managed to turn Alliance into a party that many nationalists feel comfortable supporting – either because, (as mentioned above), she’s smart and likeable – or so they can vote tactically against unionist candidates in seats where nationalist candidates fare less well.
Either way, support for Alliance has swelled to 16% in this poll – putting them on the podium in third place. But success comes with a price. The issue of a border poll is becoming too big to ignore. If Alliance wants to play top table politics, then they are going to have to spell out their position on holding one, sooner rather than later.