Northern Ireland news

Exclusive: Michelle O'Neill on course to be first minister as poll suggests Sinn Féin will top May 5 election

Michelle O'Neill is on track to be first minister. Picture by Hugh Russell

SINN Féin is on course to be Stormont’s largest party following the May 5 election with a slump forecast in the DUP’s vote, according to the results of a new opinion poll published today in The Irish News.

Alliance would emerge as a new ‘third force’ in the assembly, with 15.6 per cent of first preference votes, while the SDLP would be relegated to fifth place, taking 9.9 per cent of the popular vote, the Institute of Irish Studies University of Liverpool/The Irish News survey reveals.

If the results were repeated at the polls in just over 11 weeks' time it would put Michelle O’Neill in line to be first minister.

Political Correspondent John Manley discusses the results of today's opinion poll with Slugger O'Toole's David McCann and Irish News columnist Mary Kelly

However, her party’s share of the vote would have dropped from a record 27.9 per cent in 2017 to 23.2 per cent of first preference votes, responses to the survey indicate.

Conducted between January 24 and February 4, canvassing covered both the recent controversy around tweets by Doug Beattie and Paul Givan’s resignation.

The poll suggests the Ulster Unionist leader may have ridden out the social media storm but the DUP’s tactics are doing little to boost its popularity with voters.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson will also find little to cheer in another of the survey’s findings, which indicates the public don’t rank the protocol as an important election issue.

Just over one in 10 unionists regard the Irish Sea border as their biggest concern, with the majority instead prioritising health, the economy and recovery from the Covid pandemic.

Paul Givan resigned as DUP first minister over the protocol 11 days ago on February 3, triggering Michelle O’Neill’s resignation and backlash from political opponents.

Notably, the poll shows that one-in-five of respondents have yet to make their mind up on who to vote for – meaning there’s plenty to play for between now and polling day.

The figure is considerably higher among those who regard themselves as unionists, and higher still among ‘neithers’.

The data also reveals that more than one in 10 of those surveyed say they will not vote.

Institute of Irish Studies director Professor Peter Shirlow said the results indicated that "the nature of our society is changing".

"Those who wish to remain in the UK, unlike those who are pro-unity, are cautious about voting," he said.

"Sinn Féin can and will maintain their vote but significant sections of unionism and neithers, especially those who are socially liberal are presenting as electorally homeless."

Institute of Irish Studies director Professor Peter Shirlow

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