Win, lose or drawn-out struggle? – How to read the first poll verdict on the DUP’s return to Stormont…

The struggle for the soul of party-political unionism, which has raged for over three years and brought devolved government to a stand-still, entered a potentially decisive stage when Jeffrey Donaldson led his party back into Stormont. Where previously DUP leaders had sought to blur the dividing lines almost to invisibility, both between the DUP and the TUV and within the DUP itself, those lines have suddenly been solidified, reinforced into battlelines.

With the publication of the LucidTalk poll starting on Saturday we will get the first snapshot of unionist voter opinion. Will it award victory to Jeffrey, consolidating DUP MLA’s behind him, decisively breaking Jim Allister’s recent ability to carve the path for the DUP to follow? Or, perhaps more likely, will it award some comfort to both factions, delaying the final outcome?

Attention will focus in on two numbers: the proportion of DUP voters who back the party’s return to Stormont, and the percentage of voters backing the TUV.

With both sides hoping to claim the first numbers as endorsement for their position, how can we arrive at an objective judgement for ourselves?

To answer that question, we will need to take a dive into the polling data over the last four years.

Unionist voters really, really don’t like the “sea border” – Jeffrey’s fundamental problem in data

It may be hard for some people whose leanings are more “other” than unionist or nationalist to understand what all the fuss is about something that you cannot see, touch, taste or smell. But unionist voters feel the same way about the sea border as nationalist voters would feel about a land border.

No sooner than Boris Johnson had concluded his Brexit deal with the EU in late 2019, than unionists were making their opposition to his arrangements for Northern Ireland known to pollsters.

In mid-November UUP voters expressed deep dissatisfaction with the Northern Ireland Protocol (as the UK government’s agreement on NI with the EU was then called) as measured by Lord Ashcroft polls. But the reaction from DUP and other unionist voters was a total thumbs down. Overwhelmingly they wanted it scrapped.

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At the end of November LucidTalk conducted its poll for the upcoming 2019 Westminster “Get Brexit Done” election. Despite Johnson’s repeated (untrue) claims during the month that there would be no checks on goods going from NI to GB, opposition to Johnson’s deal was overwhelming.

The pollster asked voters to nominate those issues which would govern their choice at the election. 44% declared that opposition to Johnson’s deal would be a factor for them, while only 6% were for it. Even pro Brexit voters were giving it the cold shoulder. The only factor less popular for unionist voters was being “pro a united Ireland”.

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In this context it’s interesting to note that getting Stormont back to work was of high importance to unionist voters.

By October 2020 the UK had been outside the EU for nine months, but a transition arrangement meant that the new UK/EU trading arrangements would not take effect until the end of the year. Unionist voters were telling LucidTalk that, if there had to be a “Brexit border”, they would far rather it be between NI and RoI, than between NI and GB. No surprise there.

But what clearly did come as a surprise to the DUP leadership was the strength, depth and durability of their voters’ repugnance for the new trading arrangements that Brexit has brought about. Throughout 2020 the party appeared to believe that there was too much to worry about, with some leading figures feeling sufficiently bold as to make comments pointing to potential benefits to the NI economy from its new situation as the only part of the UK within the EU Single Market.

When the TUV hit 6% in LT’s October 2020 poll (a level unprecedented outside of Euro elections) the ripples barely broke the surface.

But February 2021 brought the first of a series of LT polls which have demonstrated the enduring strength of unionist voter, and especially DUP voter, opinion. And in that poll the TUV hit a new high of 10%. The wording of the relevant question varied in some polls, so the results need careful interpretation. But amid the noise what stands out plainly is the essential demand from the majority of DUP voters for the NIP, and subsequently the Windsor Framework, to be scrapped totally.

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Some of the variations recorded as a result of those differences in question wording can be highly instructive.

The most obvious surprise on the above graph is the apparent precipitous drop in UUP, and to a lesser extent DUP, voter antipathy to the NIP between February and May 2021. In fact, the February poll was the only one which gave respondents a forced choice between Yes and No. Yes, the NIP should be scrapped. No, it should be retained. No option for an amended arrangement. Perhaps as important either answer was consequence free; the person questioned did not have to consider the potential effects of their chosen option. Finally, the mildest dislike of the NIP, or red-searing hatred for it, would both produce the same answer.

But it certainly serves to illustrate that any version of the NIP, the Windsor Framework, or last month’s Donaldson compromise, is pushing strongly against the prevailing grain of unionist voter opinion.

That is the essential challenge that Jeffrey Donaldson and his supporters face. How many DUP voters will be prepared to accept a return to Stormont that falls short of scrapping the Windsor Framework? And how many of the remainder might turn to the TUV?

For more insight let’s turn in more detail at the results for the DUP voters.

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The different colours in the columns indicate where a different form of question was used.

There we see in dark blue on the left the DUP voters’ ideal, with 95% wanting to see the back of the NIP.

In May 2021 the question, on the other hand, was whether the DUP should risk collapsing the Stormont institutions by boycotting North South ministerial meetings. Now DUP voters would have a price to pay for trying to scrap the NIP. If we recall that getting Stormont back to work from the previous shut down came in as the fourth most important objective for unionist voters at the 2019 Westminster election, it is possible to see the difference between the 95% who wanted the NIP gone, and the 74% who were willing to risk Stormont to achieve that objective, as one measure of DUP voters’ determination on the issue.

By January 2022 the proportion of DUP voters ready to forgo Stormont in an effort to scrap the NIP had risen to 81%, counting together those who wanted to withdraw immediately, those willing to wait 2 or 3 months for negotiations, and those who thought that withdrawal should only happen after the upcoming Assembly election.

From that point on all the polls taken were against the backdrop of a Stormont that had already been shut down.

Backing for the DUP maintaining the boycott until the NIP had been abolished peaked in the August 2022 poll. Although it should be noted that it was taken against the background of the UK government introducing the Internal Market Bill, later withdrawn, which would have permitted the government to unilaterally break the terms of its agreement with the EU. It is not surprising that DUP voters should council keeping the pressure up while the government seemed to be moving in their direction.

The last three polls in this sequence all hovered at around three-quarters of DUP voters who wanted their party to stay out of Stormont until the Windsor Framework was gone. Most of the remainder wanted the party to return and negotiate. Support for accepting the WF varied between 0% and 3%.

That’s a lot of polls, over a long time period, including the three most recent, which consistently show around 75% of DUP voters wanting their party to stay out of Stormont unless the WF was killed off.

Is there any hope for Jeffrey in the data?

Consider those two polls shown gold and pink. They point to the possibility that some of that 75% could be peeled away, but also suggest that the hard core could still remain too large for Donaldson’s purposes.

The reason for the lower figures may lie in the different ways in which the question was posed.

Taking the pink one representing January 2023 first. The LT question was radically different from before. It asked voters to assume that a new “light touch” NIP was put forward. What should the DUP do then? 55% would still refuse point blank to return. 39% were prepared to consider returning but only after even more substantial changes on top of the assumed “light touch”. Looked at another way merely moderate changes would be rejected by 94% of DUP voters. But it did indicate that in a context where the UK government was seen to be giving ground a proportion of DUP voters were prepared to moderate their demands.

However, to emphasis the strength of feeling, the same poll had 69% of DUP voters rating “sorting the Protocol” as the issue which was most important to them, with 0% opting for “restoring Stormont”.

Some encouragement, but not much, for Donaldson.

More promising was the golden column of November 2022. The voters were asked “Are the DUP correct to …stop the institutions from working…until there is removal of, or changes to, the NIP”. Framed as supporting their party, 43% were prepared to see a return to Stormont provided significant changes were made to the NIP. Taken together with the 4% who wanted to go back either to negotiate more, or accept, that suggested that a DUP endorsed deal could muster 47% behind a Stormont return, versus the 53% who would still wish to hold out.

This could suggest that a hypothetical party endorsement for a change in tactics could shift the dial somewhat. Could the party’s real life endorsement, dramatically highlighted by the MLA’s return to the Assembly chamber, shift a lot more?

The power of political marketing?

For those most fundamentally opposed to any hint of a sea border the apparent concessions that Donaldson has achieved will be seen as little more than lipstick on a pig.

But it must be admitted that the government has launched the animal before the voters with all the pizzazz of a Hollywood studio presenting its latest starlet. Anticipation was stoked by granting Jeffrey Donaldson a 36-hour pre-launch window to tour the TV studios lovingly describing its every porcine pulchritude. And when ‘Safeguarding the Union’ finally sashayed down the cat-walk, during what Politico dubbed the Chris and Jeff Show, it could be seen that Westminster’s make-up artists had spared no effort. Lipstick there was, but it was by Yves St Laurent, trotters varnished with Dior, whiskers plumped with the finest mascara, and so on. But most of all lashings and lashings of concealer. But nothing could compare with the splendour of its attire, from shout to tail every jewel, every stich of cloth, was iridescent in red, white and blue.

Will this extended exercise in political marketing shift the dial even further in Jeffery’s favour? And if so, will the effect be lasting?

Not Seven Tests but One

If the Belfast Telegraph keeps to its recent pattern, it will hold the party support figures until Monday. Saturday should bring us the proportion of DUP voters who support the return to Stormont.

Below 45% A big thumbs down from DUP voters. Despite the hype, Jeffrey has failed to win even the 47% who indicated they would support a Stormont return if the changes to the Windsor Framework were significant. Dissent within the party would almost certainly grow. A leadership challenge by the summer more than likely. Future of the Executive and Assembly again in question.

45% to 55% All still to play for. A real success for Donaldson who has convinced those DUP voters who were willing to settle for less than the complete scrapping of the Windsor Framework that he has really won significant changes. He has even persuaded a small number of hold-outs to settle for something less. There will now be an all-out contest for the hearts and minds of DUP voters, with both sides scenting a real prospect of victory. The greatest risk for Donaldson is that buyer’s remorse erodes his support amidst the claim and counter-claim as to how close the new arrangements have really come to ending the Protocol/WF. If he can hold on to the converts time will probably be on his side as a General Election approaches and the Executive and Assembly become fixtures once again. This new reality could see his support levels build.

55% to 65% JD is not totally out of the woods yet – but every percentage point into this territory makes his opponents’ prospects bleaker.

Over 65% A triumph for Donaldson. He has won over a large section of DUP voters who have spent more than four years insisting that they would settle for nothing less than the end of the NIP/WF. But his troubles may be far from over. What will the DUP’s hold-out voters do? How many of them will switch/switch back to the TUV? Can he compensate by gains from the UUP?

If the TUV start to get over 8% in coming polls, and especially if they get back into double figures, even 75% might not be enough. Donaldson and his party could find themselves back in the same position as Arlene Foster three years ago.

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