Polling on unionist attitudes to the Irish Sea border has often been misinterpreted — the election shows deeper opposition than some observers want to admit
How much do unionists really care about the Northern Ireland Protocol? The answer to that question will hinge on whether devolved government returns at Stormont for months, as well as something of greater geopolitical significance — the UK’s relationship with the EU.
Many people who are not unionists — who themselves tend to support the protocol — have for months said that unionist parties are out of touch with their voters on the protocol. The election outcome suggests that analysis reflects confirmation bias and the reality is that Northern Ireland is far more divided on this issue than some people realise.
Polling on the protocol is difficult to interpret and has often been misinterpreted. It was received wisdom among many commentators going into this election that supporters of the DUP and TUV cared far less about the Irish Sea border than those parties cared about it.
The election results suggest otherwise. The UUP — which, while opposed to the protocol, is the softest in its opposition — lost support, while the TUV, so unbending in its stance that it had ‘TUV: No Sea Border’ on the ballot paper, trebled its vote.
This was a bad election for unionism, with the total unionist vote falling to a new record low. The key reason for this was the movement of votes to Alliance in the centre ground.
But it was not just the unionist vote which shrank in this election. Nationalism’s vote also fell — something masked by the psychological impact of Sinn Féin winning the first minister’s post.
However, in protocol terms the shift from the SDLP to Alliance is irrelevant because both of those parties are pro-protocol. It is more significant on the unionist side, where some of the shift was almost certainly influenced by the distaste of previously unionist voters for their parties’ anti-protocol stances; there are unionists who are strongly pro-EU and even unionists who may not like the EU but are pro-protocol because it is helping their business make money or because they believe it is ultimately in the strategic interests of the Union.
Yet the decline in the total unionist share of the vote was hardly a collapse — down about four percentage points, and some of that would have happened anyway, part of a longer trend of unionism and nationalism losing voters to Alliance.
The most significant and unsettling aspect of last week’s election for the DUP is the shift of unionist voters to the TUV. Jim Allister’s haul of almost 66,000 votes would be dramatic at any time, but it is remarkable at a point where the DUP was attempting to stop a Sinn Féin first minister. As the most hardline unionist party, TUV should have been most vulnerable to that argument — staunch unionist voters are the ones who tend to care about stopping Sinn Féin.
Yet that argument failed to stop the TUV rise. Nor was the DUP’s hardening of its position on the protocol to the extent that it seemed, on paper at least, only marginally softer than the TUV.
The TUV is confident that if the election had been last November, when the DUP’s protocol stance was softer, it would have pulled in a far bigger vote. Lee Reynolds, a key DUP strategist until last year, agrees, writing in an article for The Critic magazine yesterday that “a failure by the DUP to prioritise the protocol issue would have made the electoral damage deeper”.
Some commentators will say that polling disproves this. University of Liverpool polling in March found that when respondents were asked, “What is the most important issue that concerns you at present?”, health and the economy were the top issues for unionist voters. The protocol was third.
But that same question found just 0.9% of unionist voters put constitutional issues as their top concern. To believe the finding on the protocol is also to believe that almost no voters care passionately about constitutional issues in Northern Ireland, something which is demonstrably absurd.
Beneath some of the headlines from other polling lie hints of deeper unionist concern — which helps explain why a party as electorally ruthless as the DUP suddenly shifted its stance on this issue.
A poll by Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) in February found that 53% of the public believed the protocol has a negative impact on Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the UK. It also found that 42% of voters wanted their MLAs to vote down the Irish Sea border at the first opportunity in 2024 and 39% believed the conditions existed for the government to trigger Article 16 immediately. Those latter two percentages are significant because they almost exactly correlate with the total unionist vote.
On Tuesday, former DUP leader Peter Robinson, whose views are respected throughout the DUP, said that “the first lesson [of the election] is to ignore those voices urging the DUP to just go back into the Executive. The DUP mandate is to resolve the protocol before kick-starting the Executive.”
Other DUP sources give a similar message, although some of them accept that there are major risks for the DUP if it blocks government for a prolonged period.
The government has for weeks been briefing that it is preparing legislation to disapply swathes of the protocol. But the messages have been mixed, and even if they had been clear they would have been undermined by Boris Johnson’s preponderance towards open lies about politics in general and the protocol in particular.
The prime minister has managed to unite the Northern Irish public in their distrust of him. QUB polling has found just 4% of the public trust the British government to any extent on the protocol; 84% of people distrust Boris Johnson’s government.
Thus, even if the government had given a firm commitment to remove the Irish Sea border, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson would have been vulnerable if he too eagerly accepted the pledge.
The DUP’s election campaign message on the protocol was surprisingly tough. The DUP is a party notorious for being slippery with language, yet Sir Jeffrey was clear that the Irish Sea border had to go entirely — something only possible if the protocol is essentially swept away. Far more likely is a messy compromise whereby parts are ditched, but much endures.
At that point, Sir Jeffrey faces the decision of his career: does he accept that and return to government or does he hold out for more. Some in the DUP believe he should accept compromise. But that is not easy for a man who shared stages with Jamie Bryson, Jim Allister and Pastor Rusty Thomas, pledging to ditch the sea border in its entirety.
Rapidly abandoning hardline unionists at a time when unionism is hardening would be perilous for a DUP leader whose position is far from impenetrable. If he does so, it is unlikely to be soon.