Belfast Telegraph

Survey: Voters polarised on same-sex marriage, Brexit, an Irish Language Act in Northern Ireland

 

By Jon Tonge

As Northern Ireland's politicians take a well-earned break - just the six months off since the Assembly collapsed on January 26 - it might be time to take stock of public opinion on the issues that seem so difficult to resolve.

The 2017 Northern Ireland General Election study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, provides a detailed analysis of those key issues.

Social Market Research Belfast interviewed nearly 1,200 adults after the election.

As the exit poll on the night (again) showed, quizzing people after they have voted tends to be a more accurate guide than asking in advance.

Asked to identify the most important election issues, there was a clear top four: the NHS, the economy, constitutional issues and Brexit.

Most voters backed the party they genuinely supported - only 9% claimed to have voted tactically. For all the harrumphing over unionist election pacts, more DUP and UUP voters support the idea than oppose - not that they did the UUP any good.

Despite all their problems, the Assembly and Executive - remember them? 90 people earning £50,000 per year minimum? - continue to command widespread backing among electors.

Some 70% support restoration, two-thirds express support for the institutions and for power-sharing, with cross-community majorities in favour - and only 5% want the Executive and Assembly to be permanently binned.

So does public opinion offer hope that the institutions can be restored?

If an Irish Language Act really is a deal-breaker, direct rule looms - at least if the parties follow their support bases. Some 84% of Sinn Fein voters want an Act (only 4% say they don't) but only 10% of DUP supporters agree with such a measure. On same-sex marriage, however, there are clear signs of movement. It may surprise some that, excluding the undecided, there were more DUP voters (44%) in favour of Peter marrying Paul, to quote one MLA, than opposed (42%), with 14% undecided.

Of the 'big five' parties (let's be generous to the UUP, Alliance and SDLP) only the UUP had more against same-sex marriage than in favour, but the party was almost evenly divided. Two-thirds of Sinn Fein and SDLP voters, and nearly all Alliance supporters, back change.

Regardless of party, age has a huge effect here. Only 7% of 18 to 24-year-olds are opposed to the legalisation of same-sex marriage, while only 31% of those aged 65 and over are in favour. On abortion, a very significant proportion of the electorate is undecided on legalisation. Of the largest two parties, 41% of DUP supporters and only 32% of Sinn Fein backers are outright in favour.

The study revealed how Brexit continues to polarise. Two-thirds of DUP voters believe it is right to leave the European Union, but only 15% of Sinn Fein voters think likewise.

And while a majority of unionist voters are sanguine about Brexit, rejecting the idea that it will lead to a hard border, only a minority of nationalists back this view. If Brexit led to a border poll, 52% would vote for Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK and 27% for a united Ireland.

In terms of dealing with the past, only 12% of DUP voters support amnesties for those who admit to carrying out acts of violence during the Troubles.

In contrast, only 26% of Sinn Fein backers oppose the idea. A majority (57%) of Sinn Fein's voters endorse the idea of a truth and reconciliation commission, but only one-third of DUP backers think the same.

And what about the political leaders and appeals beyond their base? Guess what? Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill polarise voters according to party supported. Who would have thought it?

Asked to rate the DUP leader on a 0 (don't rate at all) to 10 (rate very highly), the most common score for Mrs Foster among DUP voters was 10, while 62% of Sinn Fein supporters reciprocated warmly with a score of, er, zero.

UUP opinion of Foster was fairly warm: three-quarters rated her at 5 and above.

The percentage of DUP voters endorsing Michelle O'Neill with a nice friendly 10 was, yes, also zero. There was not even a solitary score of 9 from the DUP's base for Michelle, although at least only 42% graded her at 0 out of 10. Some 84% of Sinn Fein voters rated her at 7 or above.

There is strong evidence that young people are turned off by Northern Ireland's politics.

Only one-in-three 18 to 24-year-olds bothered to vote. More broadly across all age groups, elections remain contests for the true believers.

Among those identifying as unionist, 76% voted, while 78% of nationalists voted. And of those saying they are neither unionist nor nationalist, a mere 37% went to the polls.

As it was a post-election survey, we also asked about the election's aftermath. The DUP will be heartened to see that, excluding don't knows, 96% of those who voted for the party support Arlene's arrangement with the Conservatives - and other unionist voters are equally supportive. Unsurprisingly, 90% of Sinn Fein voters do not back the new dispensation.

Maybe we need another election to sort all this out.

Only joking.

  • Jon Tonge is professor of politics at the University of Liverpool and director of the 2010, 2015 and 2017 ESRC Northern Ireland election studies, in conjunction with the universities of Leeds, Aberdeen and the LSE

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