Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Belfast Telegraph Poll 2013: Road to nowhere

The Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll blows a public raspberry at legislators, argues Robin Wilson

A Republican parade

Last Friday, the Democratic Unionist Party health minister, Edwin Poots, was given leave to appeal to the Supreme Court against successive rulings in the courts in Northern Ireland rejecting his ban on adoption by gay and lesbian couples.

Three things about this decision are remarkable. First, it is, of course, out of the public purse – the same one that pays for schools and hospitals – that the money for this legal action has and will come, when all budgets are under intense austerity pressure.

Secondly, it is nigh-on a legal certainty that Mr Poots will lose: the High Court and then the Court of Appeal had ruled that his action broke the universal legal norm of non-discrimination and there is no reason to believe the Supreme Court will take a contrary view.

Thirdly, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission had welcomed the judgments of the lower courts, as bringing the situation in the region in line with the rest of the UK and it is a pretty perverse 'unionism' that would seek to go to London to stop precisely that.

This episode encapsulates how, for the DUP, the point of devolution, above all else, is to try, Canute-like, to sustain an 'Ulster' social conservatism, in the face of liberalising influences from across the water. Yet, for most citizens, bread-and-butter issues are clearly a much higher priority.

It is little wonder, then, that the latest Belfast Telegraph/ LucidTalk opinion poll shows such public disdain for the performance of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

More than 54% of respondents characterised it as 'not very good', or 'very bad', while just 7.5% said it was 'good', or 'excellent'.

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Eliminate those who said 'don't know', or offered no opinion, and that 54% thumbs-down rises to more than 68%.

And the question was crafted to avoid a general 'anti-politician' response: it specifically asked respondents to assess the Assembly as against direct rule from Westminster.

Nor is it getting any better – on the contrary. While the possible answers were phrased slightly differently in last year's Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll, at that time 'only' 41% described the relative performance of the Assembly as 'poor', or 'very poor'.

There is no doubt that a business facing such a devastating marketing response from its customers would be heading for the bankruptcy courts.

And now, to stave off political bankruptcy, Richard Haass (below) has had to be brought in to try to keep the Stormont show on the road, given the inability of its current Executive to agree on the visceral issues of flags, parades and – in particular – dealing with a troubled past in which so many of them, on both sides, were so heavily implicated.

On parades and flags, the poll is less conclusive. But what it does show is that there is a considerable pluralism of opinion and that fundamentalist stances are not strongly supported.

On parades, 57% support the view that Parades Commission adjudications should be accepted, or that parades should only go ahead with local agreement.

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If the latter was rephrased to say that parades should only go ahead where they comply with human rights norms, removing a perceived right of veto, some of the 13% currently saying there should be a right to parade regardless of objections could be swayed, too.

On flags, there is a significant 21% minority (rising to 31% among Protestant respondents only) which insists on the Union flag flying from city and town halls all the time.

But 22.5% support the option of flying the Union flag only on designated days and another 22% combined support leaving the decision to individual councils and/or flying only civic emblems.

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So, even here there is a workable way out – if some councils, probably in predominantly Protestant areas, were to pursue the designated-days option, while others were to adopt the neutral-civic alternative, linked to the advantages of local branding.

The difficulty, of course, is that on these highly sensitive issues, the DUP and Sinn Fein have both elected to pour fuel on the fire, partly because that is the only politics they know and partly to undermine the centre ground while appeasing the true believers on their flanks.

It was thus that the flags controversy was unleashed in Belfast by a DUP piqued by the loss of its leader's East Belfast seat to Alliance, with a view to embarrassing the latter party – though, paradoxically, the Alliance Party's display of non-sectarian backbone actually redounded to its favour.

Similarly, Sinn Fein's Castlederg parading sortie (above) was clearly an attempt to reinvest in traditional 'war' rhetoric to stem the drift of young-activist support to the dissident challengers – regardless of how much the comments of Gerry Kelly at the event contradicted the commitment to the rule of law to which he signed up as a junior minister when devolution was renewed in 2007.

And, no doubt, these sectarian antics, rather than pursuit of the common good, by both dominant parties at Stormont have added to the very public raspberry the Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll shows the Assembly has received.

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