The most striking finding of the University of Liverpool Institute of Irish Studies poll published today by the Irish News is that Sinn Féin look set to become the largest party after the May 5 elections to the Stormont Assembly. Which would of course mean that Michelle O’Neill would then be nominated as First Minister in the Executive.
The poll places Sinn Féin on 23.2%; the DUP on 19.4%; Alliance on 15.6%; the UUP on 14%; SDLP 9.9%; TUV 6.4%; Greens 6.3%, with the other 6% divided between People Before Profit, Aontú, the Northern Ireland Conservatives and independents.
While Sinn Féin would obviously be pleased with such a result, their vote will not have increased since the Westminster, European and local elections of 2019, and would be significantly down on the 27.9% they won in the last Assembly elections in 2017.
The DUP poll result would represent an alarming drop of almost 9% on 2017 and that is not even accounted for by the 5.1% swing to the UUP and TUV. Likewise, the fall in the Sinn Féin vote is not noticeably benefitting either the SDLP, down 2% since 2019, People Before Profit, nor Aontú or those independent republicans who will run in the elections.
The main beneficiaries are clearly the Alliance Party which has held most of the huge gain in support evidenced in the 2019 Westminster elections, and the Greens who look set to almost treble the vote they took in 2017.
Indeed, the overall proportion of the vote clearly identifiable as nationalist – as in voters likely to support a united Ireland – and definitively unionist or loyalist, has fallen from around 86% in 2017 to 79%. That ratio is divided in the ratio of 41:38 unionist compared to 44:42 in 2017.
Of course, the origin and demographics of the Alliance and Green Party vote would suggest that most of their established and new voters are from the Protestant community and would disproportionately favour remaining in the United Kingdom were that to be put to a decision in a future border poll.
There is also the possibility that as with PBP and Aontú and others marginally eating into the Sinn Féin working class and traditional rural republican vote, that increasing numbers of middle class and younger Catholics are voting for both Alliance and the Greens. Sinn Féin and the SDLP’s ultra-liberalism may be costing them minor losses on both flanks as it were.
There is certainly little or no comfort for Sinn Féin or anyone else talking up the prospects of a border poll – the holding of which is unlikely anyway – supporting a change in the constitutional status of the 6 north eastern counties.
Then again, does Sinn Féin genuinely want this to happen – and its number crunchers are astute enough to know how any poll is likely to pan out – or is it just a handy tool to mobilise its voters come election time? They certainly will not be encouraging voters to examine their record on health, housing, and other issues that they major in on the other side of the border.
A survey of issues that voters believe are most important would suggest that “constitutional issues” are a very minor concern for most potential voters. Less than 4% said that this was their first or second priority in deciding to vote, and less than 10%, mostly unionist voters, cited the Protocol. However, this was the fourth major issue and explains the growth in support for Jim Allister’s party.
That Sinn Féin will become the largest party in the north was always a likelihood given the internal problems besetting the Democratic Unionist Party who are losing votes both to the once seemingly washed up Ulster Unionist Party and to Traditional Unionist Voice.
What will happen if and when this does take place will be interesting. It is by no means certain that the DUP, or indeed the UUP, would vote for Michelle O’Neill as First Minister which would throw the entire power sharing administration of the north into chaos.
The whole notion of supposedly diametrically opposed parties being locked into permanent coalition is inherently absurd and undemocratic anyway. The reasons for this were perhaps valid a quarter of a century ago. Not so much now, and difficult to rationalise as something that seems to have no ending.
However, that is the mechanism that was agreed by the participants as an alternative to an armed conflict that was unwinnable by any side. To change that and to facilitate a normal coalition in which likeminded liberal vaguely left parties such as Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance and the Greens might form an alternative would require the reconfiguration of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and all that flowed from it.
Ironically, May 5 the day of the election will also mark the anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands on hunger strike in the H Blocks in 1981. The resolution of the historical problem that underlay that is no nearer to solution than it was when he and the other hunger strikers died, or when all of the other thousands of people lost their lives over the course of more than 30 years.