More SDLP delegates at the party’s annual conference trust the PSNI Chief Constable than the leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, according to a Belfast Telegraph poll.
And only 14% of those questioned believed there would be a united Ireland within 20 years.
The new SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell described the findings of our snap survey as a sign of “creeping normality and evidence that people are thinking politically”.
The poll showed a party in transition, divided on issues like abortion, seeking co-operation with Protestants, questioning of the Catholic hierarchy, distrustful of Sinn Fein and with no great expectation of a united Ireland in the foreseeable future.
One sign of the times was overwhelming support for the police — 90% of delegates said they would encourage a relative who was considering joining the PSNI to do so, despite the continuing dissident threat.
Matt Baggott, the Chief Constable, was considered the most trustworthy of a range of public figures, with 62% trusting him and only 18% distrusting him.
By comparison, Cardinal Sean Brady, second after Mr Baggott, was trusted by less than half (44%) and distrusted by more than a third (34%), possibly a legacy of his handling of recent scandals in the Catholic Church. Tom Elliott (44%) and Peter Robinson (36%) and even Owen Paterson (20%) all commanded far more trust than fellow nationalist Martin McGuinness, who was actively distrusted by 92% of delegates.
When it came to going into opposition at Stormont, 30% backed the idea but half were against. All the delegates surveyed said they would like to see more Protestants joining their party, a view shared by Dr McDonnell, who is planning intensive outreach to Protestants and unionists over the next couple of years.
Some, but not all, of the heat also seems to have gone out of the constitutional issue. Only 14% expected to see a united Ireland by 2031, and, if there was a referendum, over a quarter (26%) would vote to keep the border, though 60% wanted it removed.
This appeared to be an issued on which opinion was shifting. Dr McDonnell believed that many members saw the task of achieving Irish unity primarily in terms of reconciliation both within northern Ireland and between north and south. Abortion divided delegates.
Where there would once have been near unanimity to ban it 30% now believe it should be made easier with 28% wanting it made harder and 42% content with the status quo.
Polling was carried out by Hannah Mark and Lisa Nelson, journalism students at Belfast Metropolitan College. They interviewed 50 delegates randomly out of around 350.