DUP leader Peter Robinson is out of step with a significant section of grassroots party members on key issues such as abortion and contentious parades, a poll has found.
The Belfast Telegraph carried out a survey of DUP members during its two-day annual conference held at the weekend.
Around 450 people, just under half the DUP membership, attended the party conference and we surveyed 50 of them, a fairly large sample of activists.
We gauged opinion on a wide range of topics — from abortion when the woman has been raped, to breaches of Parades Commission rulings, support for its leader and pacts with other parties.
We found that 40% of those surveyed think that Parades Commission determinations, which are legally binding, should not be obeyed when agreement cannot be reached on contentious issues.
Mr Robinson has stated repeatedly that, in the absence of some new body, the Commission’s rulings should not be flouted, as laid out in law. Only 44% of those surveyed agreed with him.
Mr Robinson recently told the Belfast Telegraph that rape and incest victims should be eligible for legal abortions despite Northern Ireland’s strict laws on when one is allowed. Only half of those questioned agreed, however, with 42% opposed to abortion when a woman is a victim of rape or incest and the remainder undecided.
The survey suggested the leader has some way to go to bring grassroots thinking with him on such deeply divisive issues.
Although these divisions remain, Mr Robinson had the support of 100% of those questioned to lead the party into the next election. When asked anonymously, none of them suggested any alternative leader. The 100% support is the best endorsement of any party leader in this newspaper’s series of conference snapshots and virtually unprecedented in political polling terms. It is an increase on the 92% support he scored in our 2011 survey.
There was strong support for unionist unity with 78% saying they would like the DUP and UUP to form a single party and an even higher proportion, 90%, favoured electoral pacts between the parties in marginal seats.
This message comes ahead of the expected Westminster by-election in Mid-Ulster where Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness has announced he is stepping down.
Mr Robinson has argued in favour of unionist unity but Mike Nesbitt, the UUP leader, believes unionism is stronger for having two separate parties.
There was also significant backing for Mr Robinson’s suggestion of moves towards a single non-denominational education system, with 68% in support and the others split equally at 16% apiece between opposition and ‘don’t knows’. But on the legalisation of same sex marriages — giving churches the legal right to opt out — a total of 90% of members are against with only 8% in favour.
Delegates were asked what should be done if Sinn Fein overtook the DUP to become the largest Stormont party and nominated Martin McGuinness as First Minister. Almost half (48%) said the party should accept Mr McGuinness in the position and remain in government, while 20% said the DUP should withdraw and 32% were unsure.
Theresa Villiers was the first Secretary of State to address a DUP conference — her speech seen as a counterpoint to the first visit to a DUP conference by an Irish Government minister, Simon Coveney, on Friday.
When delegates were questioned before her speech, 42% believed she was ‘doing a good job’ but most (52%) were undecided, saying it was too soon to tell.
The survey of 50 DUP members attending the party’s annual conference was carried out on Friday in association with LucidTalk Polling. The interviewers were Mary Therese Toal and Padraic Grant, both journalism students at Belfast Metropolitan College.