Today’s state-of-the-parties poll in the Irish News (in conjunction with Liverpool University), which shows Sinn Fein cruising to victory over the DUP on Thursday by the seemingly impregnable margin of 26.6% to 18.2%, should be viewed – like all polling – as a snapshot of public opinion, not as holy writ.
More akin to a bookie’s tip or a weather presenter’s prediction of sunshine. Sometimes they’re right – but not always – and it’s never clear exactly when they will hit the mark.
Polls tell a story, but they also have the capacity to change the narrative, too. Spooked by the prospect of a Unionist drubbing, many voters may have spluttered over their cornflakes this morning and now decided to give Jeffrey Donaldson one last go.
With a small electorate, too many parties, and preferential voting thrown in, a few dozen votes here and there can make a material difference to this week’s outcome.
The headline figures aside, I was particularly interested in what the poll showed in terms of where second preference votes were heading – not just in relation to Thursday’s assembly election – but how the pattern could impact a border poll in due course.
Particularly those of the Alliance and Green parties that are usually said to be keenest on ignoring the ‘constitutional question’.
Competing neck and neck with the DUP at 18.2% in this latest poll, Alliance’s second preference votes breaks 2:1 for parties committed to Irish unity.
This might seem counter-intuitive for a party that was traditionally made up of liberal Protestants, but there are clearly Nationalists who live in predominantly Unionist seats lending their support to Naomi Long’s party in a bid to vote against a Unionist candidate.
A clear 54.2% of Alliance second preferences go to the SDLP (33.1%), Sinn Fein (15.1%), Aontú (1.2%) and People Before Profit (4.8%).
In contrast, just 22.6% transfer to Unionists, split between the UUP (15.1%), the DUP (6.2%) and TUV (1.3%).
It’s a similar story with the Greens.
Four in ten of their voters’ second preferences go to united Irelanders, divided between Sinn Fein (30%) and PBP (10%). In contrast, the DUP picks up just an eighth of that support (5%).
There’s an emerging narrative that says voters are switching to what passes for middle-ground parties that are less bothered about constitutional politics.
I think the real issue is that roughly half of Alliance and Green voters seem ready to vote for Irish unity.
This matters in a tightening race, with Sinn Fein and the SDLP tipping the scales in this poll with 36.5%, while Unionist parties (DUP, UUP and TUV) muster only 36% between them.
The upshot? There is more room – considerably more room – for United Irelanders to build a winning coalition in that border poll by hoovering up votes from Alliance and the Greens.
Where are status quo Unionists getting their extra votes?
Anyway, let’s see what Thursday brings.
Kevin Meagher is author of ‘A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable and How it Will Come About.’