To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, there is nothing so instructive as the observation of trifles. So, while the headline story in the LucidTalk poll was the widening gap between the DUP and Sinn Fein (raising the possibility of Michelle O'Neill as First Minister at the 2022 Assembly election), I was more struck by what seems to be a shift of support from the DUP to the TUV.
That direction of travel matters. Jim Allister is - and he will know I mean no disrespect - the TUV. There has always been a respect, albeit sometimes grudging, for him across unionism: yet, so far, that respect hasn't translated into the vote level he needs to grow his party in the Assembly. And I don't expect that to change. Which allows the DUP to breathe a sigh of relief, because it holds out the reasonable prospect of presently disaffected supporters returning to them at the next election.
There's another trifle. The UUP is showing no signs of growth: which is an extraordinary thing at a time when the DUP has so many external (and internal) challenges. Steve Aiken, just entering his 15th month as UUP leader, has a good/great rating of only 17%, with 83% registering bad/don't know. Again, the DUP will heave a sigh of relief, because its primary challenger on the unionist side seems to have the ongoing traction of a particularly genteel sloth.
And one other trifle. If the UUP isn't attracting former DUP voters (even those who may be experiencing buyer's remorse) and doesn't seem to be winning back former UUP voters from Alliance (which is continuing its surge according to the poll), where will its electoral growth come from? Or, putting that another way, where does it need to position itself to appeal to both buyer's remorse Brexiteer unionists and the 'liberal' small-u unionists who have shifted to Alliance? To be honest, I've no idea.
While the DUP will dismiss the poll, it can't so easily dismiss the questions it raises about Arlene Foster's leadership. An unnecessary Assembly election in 2017 which saw unionism lose its overall majority; a dog's dinner relationship with the Conservatives which ended with a border in the Irish Sea and NI pushed further away from GB's orbit; the loss of two MPs in the last general election; and now 5 points behind Sinn Fein and just one ahead of Alliance.
I've been long enough in the politics game -as an activist and observer- to know that there are only two questions being asked in the DUP right now: Is Foster the right person to lead us into the next election; and who is there to replace her? She will know this. She will understand it. It's those sort of questions which saw her leave the UUP in January 2004 and join the DUP. She will know the knives are being sharpened. What she doesn't know is, who will lead the charge against her; or when a group of senior figures will knock on her door.
I think it's also likely this poll (particularly the present strength of Sinn Fein and Alliance) will encourage influential voices across unionism to suggest some sort of below-the radar conversation about how unionism: maximises its overall vote; agrees some pacts in some constituencies to avoid seat losses; agrees some common messaging; and finds a strategy for ending internecine warfare. That, of course, will depend on how willing the DUP (on these figures representing less than half of the combined unionist vote) is to facilitate such a conversation.
On that point, permit me a final trifle. It's too late for Foster to lead the conversation, for it would look like a last personal throw of the dice from a weakened leader. Yet it might be the very platform from which a challenger could offer a new route for the party. Again, to paraphrase Holmes, "when you have eliminated the impossible then whatever remains, however unlikely, is probably the best thing to do based on current evidence."