Martin McGuinness was today revealed as Northern Ireland’s most respected politician – signalling a remarkable transformation from IRA leader to respected political figurehead.
According to the results of a Belfast Telegraph poll published today, the senior Sinn Fein figure is viewed as by far the top-performing minister in the Northern Ireland Executive.
Even unionists responding to the survey had praise for McGuinness’s performance as Deputy First Minister – contributing to a lead of 20 percentage points over First Minister Peter Robinson.
Today’s survey is the first in a regular series of exclusive |monthly polls which will test the temperature of post-devolution Northern Ireland.
Belfast Telegraph editor Mike Gilson said the results “suggest that we are maybe moving into a different phase in which politicians are judged as much on their performance in the here and now as on their history”.
“If so, that has to be seen as a positive step,” he added.
The Deputy First Minister is viewed as by far the top-performing minister in the Stormont Executive, according to the survey carried out in association with Inform Communications.
The Mid-Ulster MP is now seen as the “most impressive” minister of the power-sharing team — polling more than double the next highest, party colleague Michelle Gildernew.
Once widely regarded as a hate-figure by unionists because of his Provisional IRA background, the senior Sinn Fein man now rates surprisingly well among Protestants, achieving the same score (11%) as Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey.
And he left his fellow First Minister Peter Robinson trailing by 20 percentage points on both sides of the community.
The poll reflects an astonishing transformation in the image of Mr McGuinness who emerged from the ranks of the IRA in Londonderry in the early 1970s, including a spell in prison in the Republic, to become Sinn Fein’s chief negotiator during Good Friday Agreement negotiations in 1998 and later at St Andrews in 2006.
Today’s survey is the first in a regular Belfast Telegraph/Inform Communication series of polls which will test the temperature of post-devolution Northern Ireland.
Telegraph editor Mike Gilson said: “This poll is a snapshot of course, but it is a very interesting snapshot.
“It suggests that we maybe moving into a different phase of political life here in which politicians are judged as much on their performance in the here and now as on their history.
“If so, that has to be seen as a positive step. If the message is that some people are recognising that politicians can begin the journey from conflict towards statesmanship it is to be welcomed.
“If the message is that our politicians must do more to leave their historical baggage at the door of the debating chamber that too is positive.”
In contrast the Belfast Telegraph/Inform Communications survey put DUP leader Robinson on just 7% — Mr McGuinness scored 27% — with a zero rating among Catholics.
Sinn Fein’s Agriculture Minister is in second place overall with 10%, again with a significant approval level from Protestants (8%).
The DUP’s best performing minister is Arlene Foster with 9% of those surveyed endorsing her track record at Enterprise, Trade and Industry.
Party leader Mr Robinson was in a disappointing fourth place, behind SDLP Social Development Minister and leadership candidate Margaret Ritchie. A DUP spokesman said: “Obviously the DUP is aware of the sort of issues that have been raised by this poll and even before the poll was released our leader Peter Robinson was moving to address some of these issues.”
However, despite Mr McGuinness’s popularity, Sinn Fein remained tightlipped last night and refused to comment.
Two-and-a-half years after the four-party administration took up office the ratings for most ministers are poor.
In some cases the percentages achieved by a few of the ministers — among them the DUP’s Environment Minister Edwin Poots and Culture Minister Nelson McCausland, as well as Sinn Fein junior minister Gerry Kelly — are close to or below the poll’s 3% margin of error.
A sample of 500 people were questioned earlier this month and asked to declare as Protestants, Catholics, or other. Mr McGuinness also scored highest with the latter (21%).
There is contrasting, if unsurprising, news for Sinn Fein as Education Minister Caitriona Ruane is seen as the minister who has most disappointed people.
A total of 24% of Catholics, as well as 39% of Protestants and 19% of others, contributed to Ms Ruane’s disapproval rating of 31%, almost double the next most disappointing, Mr Robinson.
His DUP colleague, Finance Minister Sammy Wilson, and Health Minister Michael McGimpsey also have ‘most disappointed’ people, with the Ulster Unionist Health Minister scoring almost equally between Catholics and Protestants.
Meanwhile, three-quarters of those polled (75%) say the expenses scandals of the last two years have damaged the way they view politicians — with most of the remainder saying it made no difference.
And on the other controversy over double-jobbing, almost the same level of respondents (71%) — including 73% of Protestants and 68% of Catholics — said they are not content for Assembly members to also be MPs at Westminster.