Northern Ireland

John Manley: Survey suggests May 5 could turn out to be watershed

Political Correspondent John Manley
Political Correspondent John Manley Political Correspondent John Manley

EVERY election is important but May’s assembly poll has taken on special significance.

Arguably it’s the most important for a generation, with a sizeable cohort within the electorate born after the Good Friday Agreement.

The May 5 poll is the first since Brexit became a reality, the first since the institutions were restored post-RHI scandal, and the first since the DUP imploded, losing two leaders in a matter of weeks.

Traditional allegiances will of course play a role in deciding which parties prosper at the polls but increasingly factors beyond the constitutional issue are expected to influence voter choice, especially when it comes to voting down the card.

What is very apparent from Institute of Irish Studies University of Liverpool/The Irish News survey is that the DUP is not the party it once was and that its fetishisation of the protocol could be misplaced and counterproductive.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has gambled on being able to whip up hysteria about the post-Brexit trade arrangements, endlessly repeating their apparent cost to the north’s economy. Yet households across Ireland and Britain are facing soaring prices in energy, food, childcare and a range of goods and services, so to suggest the protocol is having a severe impact on people’s pockets is spurious and blinkered.

It should also be remembered that the DUP leader once said he could live with 40,000 job losses arising from a no-deal Brexit.

If, as suggested by today's survey, the DUP sees its share of the vote drop by a third compared to five years ago, it begs the question whether the party will reappraise its (lack of) strategy and belatedly accept the reality of the protocol.

The degree to which its vote migrates to the TUV will undoubtedly have a bearing on this, though the latest figures suggest support for Jim Allister’s party isn’t as high as indicated previously elsewhere.

In fact, most people were sceptical about the level of support the TUV was receiving in some opinion polls – only the DUP appeared convinced.

Today’s survey results bode relatively well for Sinn Féin, which has largely been coasting and doing a lot of co-opting in the months since the pandemic was at its height.

Crucially, the party has managed to avoid any major controversies, its northern leadership appearing happy to sit back and let the DUP walk itself into electoral defeat. Nonetheless, a four percentage point-plus fall in vote share should cause a little panic.

Michelle O’Neill’s bid to become first minister may encounter some not insurmountable difficulties post-election but it looks increasingly likely that Sinn Féin will be in top spot on the other side of polling day.

Conversely, the opinion poll results don’t auger well for the SDLP, which despite new blood and fresh ideas is failing to make the necessary inroads against its larger rival.

The 9.9 per cent vote share in the opinion poll represents a slide of 1.5 percentage points on the 2017 performance of Colum Eastwood’s party, with Alliance and the Greens appearing to be the biggest beneficiaries.

Today's opinion poll indicates that the Alliance surge looks set to continue, though suggestions that Naomi Long’s party can double its 9.1 per cent share in 2017 look a little ambitious, while forecasts that it could emerge as Stormont’s second largest party should also be taken with a generous helping of salt.

The ‘Beattie bounce’ looks more like a bobble, with the latest poll indicating an uplift rather than a big increase in vote share. Nevertheless, the UUP leader should be reasonably content that his recent Twitter indiscretions haven’t seen him banished to the political wilderness.

Of the smaller parties, the Greens have most to be pleased with, a 6.3 per cent share representing a significant lift on its 2017 performance.

With strong transfer potential, Clare Bailey must be hopeful that she can secure at least one more assembly seat, if not double her party’s current quota – though where that might happen is unclear.

Overall, the latest poll suggests a degree of voter apathy within nationalism-republicanism, while the middle ground continues to expand at a steady rate.

Unionism, meanwhile, is fracturing as the fallout from Brexit and the prevalence of more progressive attitudes opens up divisions that were previously trumped by crude opposition to Irish unity.

On the basis of today's survey, the May 5 election may yet turn out to be a watershed moment in Northern Irish politics.

Read More

  • Michelle O'Neill on course to be first minister
  • Protocol matters most to little more than one in 10 unionists
  • One-fifth of voters are still undecided

Analysis (premium)

  • David McCann: When one-in-five are undecided there's still plenty to play for
  • Mary Kelly: Survey contradicts Jeffrey Donaldson's claims about protocol