Belfast Telegraph

Bill White: Unionists need to turn on the charm with Alliance voters to ensure border poll goes their way

Recently LucidTalk ran a Sinn Fein-linked poll on Brexit and the border, here pollster Bill White looks at the reaction

DUP leader Peter Robinson congratulates Alliance’s Naomi Long after her victory in 2010
DUP leader Peter Robinson congratulates Alliance’s Naomi Long after her victory in 2010

You may have seen our recent Northern Ireland Opinion Panel poll that we ran on behalf of the European parliamentary group the GUE/NGL, of which Sinn Fein is a member, which researched scenarios relating to Brexit and how it may affect Northern Ireland.

This project followed on from our own quarterly October 2017 NI Tracker poll (2,080 respondents – NI Representative) which covered the border and related issues.

The key question in that poll was what way would you vote in a border referendum? The results came out: 55% pro NI-in-the-UK, 34% pro NI-in-a-united Ireland, with 10% undecideds. Full reports for both these poll-projects can be found on the LT website.

Both polls attracted the expected amount of opinion and criticism. However, the criticisms and views from the unionist side were particularly strong, but more importantly seemed to show a very unrealistic view of the current makeup of opinion in NI.

Some unionists seem to think that the pro NI-in-the-UK vote in such a referendum would be (or should be) around 65% to 70% - at least. We got lots of comments like ‘Ah the pro NI-in-the-UK vote would be much higher because….’, and the reasons included ‘all the current non-voters, would come out and vote, and vote pro NI-in-the-UK’ (really, would they?), plus ‘a large section of the Catholic community are pro NI-in-the-UK’ (again, is that actually true after the EU Referendum?), and so on.

Given today’s NI demographics and election results, these sorts of comments seem to be somewhat unrealistic.

Indeed leaving aside the demographics, and the opinion polls (including ours), you only have to look at NI election results over the past five to 10 years to see the actual real situation.

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These election results show the unionist vote running at slightly less than 50% (on average), the nationalist/republican vote at about 40%-42% (again on average), and the Alliance/Green/Others vote at about 10%-11%.

Thus for unionists to get to say the 60% mark in a NI border poll, they need to build a broad coalition, particularly across the Alliance/Green/Others voting block, and the current non-voters block (about 35% of the NI electorate).

I would suggest that 60% pro NI-in-the-UK is the minimum unionists should be aiming for in such a NI border poll - anything less (and particularly less than 55%) would be de-stabilising and result in the NI border issue remaining ‘on the agenda’, with the pro-United Ireland camp pushing for another border poll within a short period.

In terms of this last point, just look at Scotland - their referendum result was 55% to 45%, which in independence referendum terms is a pretty close result, and it’s this sort of narrow result that allows the argument to be kept alive - and in Scotland the independence argument and discussion is still going.

However, it's undoubtedly Brexit that has really affected the whole impact on the possible results from a NI border poll. Post the EU Referendum, our polling has detected two crucial changes with NI voting intentions in a border poll.

Firstly, up until Brexit there was a notable minority of the nationalist/republicans who were ‘sort of OK’ with the status-quo in NI (however whether this group would’ve gone out and voted pro NI-in-the-UK, in a Border poll, is another question).

This group fully supported the 1998 Good Friday agreement, supported devolution, and were pro-EU. Yes, this group still had Irish nationalist aspirations, but they were prepared to wait for a united Ireland. However, with Brexit, this group has now changed its mind and become much more assertively pro-united Ireland.

Secondly (and similarly) the vast majority of the Alliance/Green/Others voting block (around 11% of the NI voter base) have been pro NI-in-the-UK, but post the EU Referendum a section of this group has swung to the pro-united Ireland camp, mainly to ensure NI remains within the EU.

Plus, based on Brexit, the number of ‘Don’t Knows/Not Sures’ has also grown significantly within this group. Remember, the vast majority of the Alliance/Green/Others voting block are very pro EU.

Based on this real 2018 situation, unionists should realise that the 1950s and 1960s are gone, - that was when unionists had a comfortable majority at Stormont and every Westminster seat was held by a unionist, usually with comfortable large majorities.

For example in 1973, South Belfast had a unionist MP with 70% of the vote – at the 2017 election the total unionist vote in South Belfast was 34.5%.

That’s quite a drop, and that’s only one NI constituency – similar patterns emerge in other constituencies. Therefore, for unionism to do well in a NI border referendum and obtain a successful result (and as said above, realistically that has to be somewhere around the 60% pro NI-in-the-UK mark – at least), they need to adopt a more inclusive agenda, and build a broader pro-unionist coalition.

For example, unionists seem to continually criticise the Alliance Party, but it’s not the Alliance party leaders and representatives that are the problem – it’s the 90,000 people who regularly vote Alliance or Green. To get to that 60% score in a NI border referendum, unionism needs to ensure they get the vast majority of this Alliance/Green/Others block voting pro NI-in-the-UK, and also a substantial chunk of the current ‘non-voters’ voting that way as well.

A border poll may still be a long way off, but it’s on the agenda, and on the horizon. As such, unionism needs to start thinking about how to build this broader pro NI-in-the-UK coalition – and they need to start thinking about that now.

Bill White, is managing director of Belfast based LucidTalk Polling and Market Research. You can follow LucidTalk on Twitter at @LucidTalk.

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