Belfast Telegraph

Shifting opinions: Views on gay marriage and policing among those altering quicker than parties

The Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll demonstrates that, on social and moral issues, society is changing faster than politicians realise, writes Alex Kane

It's fashionable in some circles – particularly if you don't like the results – to knock opinion polls. But the fact of the matter is that they do give a reasonably accurate picture of what people think: albeit what they think at a particular time, rather than what they will always think about something.

And they tend to be pretty good at detecting changing opinions and highlighting potential problems further down the line.

Take the Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll and the question about whether the law on same-sex marriage (which allows churches either to perform the ceremonies, or not) should be extended to Northern Ireland.

Of those who expressed an opinion, almost 53% opposed extending the law. On the surface, that's not a great surprise and it certainly fits in with the generally small-c conservative nature of Northern Ireland society.

But two points are worth noting. The first is that the Don't Knows/No Opinion accounted for 43% of those asked, which means that they probably aren't all that hung up on the issue: in other words, it's not likely to be an issue that determines how they will vote.

Second, support for extending the law is noticeably higher among those in the 18-25 and 25-44 age groups: which would suggest that, within the next 20 years, there will be a comfortable majority in favour of changing the law here.

Political parties – old and new – and the Churches ignore that fact at their peril. It's worth noting that this shift towards liberalising marriage law is almost certainly indicative of changing opinions across a whole range of socio/moral issues in Northern Ireland.

The place is changing, and changing much more quickly than our parties and Assembly seem prepared to acknowledge.

In another question, people were asked their opinion on whether the name of any individual, or group, who donate more than £7,500 to a political party should be in the public domain – as is the case in the rest of the United Kingdom.

In all, 43% of those expressing an opinion think it's still too dangerous to publish the names. I have some sympathy for that view: in my time with the Ulster Unionist Party I met many potential donors who would not have given money had their name been made public.

That said, the public does have a right to know who gives money to political parties.

Any journalist, or other bona fide inquirer, who wants to check a particular story, or connection, would be able to ask if a specific person was listed as a significant donor (and, let's face it, £7,500-plus is a pretty significant sum) to a particular political party.

That solution, or something similar to it, would meet the demands of the 57% of respondents who think that either the same rules should apply here as apply elsewhere, or who would accept the application of a "lower threshold than in GB".

There are usually reasons why individuals, organisations and businesses give money to political parties; which is why it is an important part of democracy and openness that their names be accessible.

The political parties will be concerned by the response to the question of how respondents rated the "performance of the PSNI". An astonishing 45% of Protestants and Catholics rated them as "average", not "good", or "very bad".

Interestingly, almost 50% of the AB social classes (the top/upper end of the scale) refused to rate them as "good", or "excellent"; a figure which is slightly higher than the 43% from the DE classes (the lowest end of the scale). The conclusion to draw, I suppose, is that the ABs regard the PSNI as too lenient, while the DEs view them as too harsh.

While it is almost certainly the case that these figures may have been skewed by events over the summer, the fact remains that two key demographs of society are not happy with the PSNI.

This general view of the PSNI also explains why Matt Baggott, the chief constable, scored so poorly in the question asking respondents to rate key figures: he came last, with a negative score of -13.1.

These ratings for both Baggott and the PSNI will concern the political parties, because it is the PSNI which is tasked with holding the frontline during parades and protests and there may now be a temptation to view them as part of the problem.

What the responses to these three questions have in common is the evidence they provide that Northern Ireland really is changing on issues which are not intimately linked to the constitutional question.

Perspectives, particularly among women and the young, are shiftingin a way which suggests that, on social/moral issues, the parties are lagging behind the electorate.

And that, more than anything else, may explain why turnout continues to tumble.

Alex Kane is a commentator and writer @AlexKane221b

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