Ben Lowry: A poll that finds support for the UK, the DUP and scrapping protocol checks – not something you hear reported very often

Here is something that you might be surprised to read.

By Ben Lowry
Saturday, 6th November 2021, 7:47 am
Updated Saturday, 6th November 2021, 7:59 am
The panel discussion on BBC NI The View only had time to discuss part of the complex University of Liverpool poll findings, which seemed to be a bad result for unionists but on closer reading had many positives for them
The panel discussion on BBC NI The View only had time to discuss part of the complex University of Liverpool poll findings, which seemed to be a bad result for unionists but on closer reading had many positives for them

An overwhelming majority of people of all political persuasions want the Northern Ireland Protocol to be overhauled or scrapped.

That is the finding from the latest opinion poll on the Irish Sea border.

But you have not heard that remarkable survey result in the news, have you?

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Yet that is a conclusion that can be drawn from one of the answers in University of Liverpool research that was unveiled on Thursday night on the BBC Northern Ireland political programme, The View.

I was part of a panel which discussed the poll, but as is inevitable on such a programme there was only a small amount of time to get into the details of a comprehensive survey, in which respondents were asked many different questions.

Thus I did not get to make points that needed to be made.

Much of the results of the Liverpool research suggested that people in NI are not that bothered by the protocol, not even unionists.

But I think that is a serious mis-reading of the findings, which were complex and contradictory.

In one crucial question, the people who took part in the survey were asked about the UK proposal that goods should circulate without checks on their movement into and within Northern Ireland if those goods meet either UK or EU standards.

This is the position of Boris Johnson’s government, as announced in its command paper of July on how to improve the protocol. While London has insisted that it does not want to scrap the Irish Sea border, its July plan amounted to such an overhaul of the protocol as to in effect propose a new one.

A massive 74.7% of those who replied to the question about goods being able to circulate without checks agreed with its premise.

A further 13.4% neither agreed or disagreed, and a mere 7.2% disagreed, with 4.7% saying they did not know.

Un-surprisingly, the UK position enjoyed around 90% support among TUV and UUP voters and 80% backing among DUP ones.

But much more surprisingly, indeed astonishingly, it also enjoyed 69.5% support among Sinn Fein voters and 72.5% support among SDLP voters

Almost 80% of Alliance suppoters endorsed the UK government line, as did almost 70% of Greens.

Yet many of the people who answered the question will not have realised that by agreeing with the statement in the University of Liverpool survey about free circulation of goods, they were endorsing the UK government position.

Indeed it is clear from their answer to another question that they did not understand the implications of their answer to the one about discarding checks.

The poll respondents were asked this:

The EU has proposed a solution regarding food, plant and animal health (i.e. ‘SPS’) that will lead to a reduction (approximated at 80%) of checks for a wide range of goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. This proposal is…? [they then got options from acceptable to unacceptable]

The question is potentially misleading because the 80% reduction in checks would only apply if the protocol was being fully implemented, which it is not.

Anyway, that statement also enjoyed very substantial support, from 40% of DUP voters to almost 70% of Alliance supporters and almost 80% of SDLP.

In other words, taking the two statements together a majority of people agreed with both.

Overall, 75% of respondents want free circulation of goods.

And 55% of respondents think the EU proposal is acceptable.

That is contradictory.

The EU position and the UK position both enjoy broad support, yet the EU and the UK are so far apart that they might be about to become entangled in a trade war over the NI Protocol.

Thus in one respect the survey findings are absurd, or if not absurd then almost meaningless.

It highlights a problem with opinion polls on complex matters, no matter how rigorous the poll questions.

The great majority of the population have no detailed understanding of the Irish Sea border. How could they? The protocol is complicated even for those of us who have been following it closely for two years. It was so complicated that many government MPs did not understand it in 2019.

Thus most people are only able to agree with general sentiments about the protocol.

And if the EU puts a spin on its proposals, that it will entail an 80% fall in checks, people will agree with it. If the UK presents its own plan in an agreeable light, that it will allow free movement of checks, they will agree with that too.

Similarly, if you were to ask people in a poll if Northern Ireland should have specific trade arrangements post Brexit (but you don’t use the word protocol), respondents will likely agree.

If you were to ask them if there should be unfettered trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, respondents will likely agree.

But in doing so they have agreed with positions that do not sit easily together, and might even be entirely incompatible.

I used to get annoyed by the lazy media regurgitation of surveys that purported to show large majorities in Northern Ireland in favour of a Bill of Rights for NI.

Such a bill is central to the republican project to make NI a place apart from Great Britain.

If you ask people if they want a Bill of Rights, it sounds all very pleasant and agreeable, so most people will say yes. But if you ask them if they want another complex set of constitutional laws that will be expensive and will separate NI from GB, many people will begin to think no.

The most notable findings of the University of Liverpool survey did not relate to the protocol, the minutiae of which is not easy to understand. They related to something that survey respondents do find easy to understand: for whom will you vote, and to which nation do you want to belong?

And in those key questions, the poll found far higher support for staying in the UK (a two-to-one lead among those who expressed a view) and a far lower Sinn Fein lead over the DUP (2.9%) than in recent LucidTalk findings.

So, in summary:

Large support for overhauling the protocol, large support for the Union and the DUP and SF neck and neck.

Not something you would have expected from the many gleeful reports about public support for the protocol and the growing appeal of a ‘New Ireland’, is it?

Ben Lowry (@Benlowry2) is News Letter editor. Other articles by him below and information on how to subscribe to the paper:

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