Northern Ireland

David McCann: Sinn Féin in strongest position but DUP steadily regaining support - poll

We are, at most, 14 months away from a general election being held across the UK and the Irish News-University of Liverpool poll indicates that big swings we are seeing in polls across the water are also happening in Northern Ireland. In the best position are Sinn Féin.

Having had a disappointing result in 2019, the party has significantly rebounded and with its 31% rating, it would easily hold key marginal seats such as Fermanagh-South Tyrone, South Down and North Belfast with increased majorities. On these figures the party would also be hopeful of a competitive performance in previously problem areas such as Foyle. 

For the DUP, the result does indicate the trend in polls that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson's party is on an upward trajectory in popularity. However, the surge in Sinn Féin and the presence of minor unionist forces demonstrates their precarious position.

In a 'first past the post' system, divides in unionism cost seats, particularly as the real estate of this side of politics shrinks. The 25% score shows the DUP is the best placed unionist party to win seats, but this is down from its 2019 result.

Read more:

  • David McCann: The route to a border poll goes through Naomi Long
  • David McCann: Either we govern this place or nobody else will

On these figures, winning back North Belfast and South Belfast would be incredibly difficult and North Down would also be out of reach. This poll will fuel the argument for pacts within unionism, rather than halt it. However, even with a pact, this poll shows that a combined unionist vote may not be enough to win back some of the seats that were lost in 2019. 

The Alliance Party has maintained its spot as the third-place party with 15%. This essentially means it is steady as she goes for the party. The one disappointment will be that on this score it does not show any massive in-roads anywhere else. Alliance will likely focus on holding North Down and making a challenge for East Belfast.

Read More

  • Sinn Féin on course to break Westminster record
  • Stormont suspension fuels greater debate around Irish unity
  • Peter Shirlow - Unionism needs to read the room
  • Poll results may vary in a science that is far from exact

This score shows the party is well placed in a split field on the pro-union side of holding North Down, but would likely fall short in East Belfast. A bright spot is that in an election where once upon a time, Alliance was squeezed, it is holding its own. 

The SDLP goes into the next election holding the two safest seats in Northern Ireland. A surprise last time was the scale of the victories that the party had in Foyle and South Belfast. The 9% score shows the party will be anticipating that will not be repeated. If this happens on election day, the party will suffer its lowest vote share at a Westminster election in its history.

On these numbers, the SDLP would be focusing on holding its seats and would be in retreat in places like East Derry and South Down. Colum Eastwood and Clare Hanna will rely on their own personal votes, rather than support for a party brand to get them over the line. 

The UUP still faces that age-old problem of Westminster elections, which is stopping the DUP from sucking up all the oxygen. On 11%, it will struggle outside of Fermanagh and South Tyrone to command any attention. This has been the issue at nearly every election since 2010 and according to this poll, it is going to continue to struggle to break out. The drive for pacts in key constituencies will likely see its exit from many areas. 

Some 14% of voters surveyed are still undecided with at best a year to go. There is still time for parties to falter or make up ground. Now it looks like we are going to get a repeat of the assembly and local government elections with a different voting system in 2024.