Ben Lowry: Northern Ireland seems to rely increasingly on just one pollster for data on attitudes to a border poll

Northern Ireland is nearing a critical juncture as to public views on its constitutional future, or claims about such views.

Saturday, 24th April 2021, 11:20 am
Updated Sunday, 25th April 2021, 9:50 am
The 1998 Belfast Agreement referendum had an 81% turnout above, and brought out many people who rarely vote. There is speculation that if a border poll had the same impact, it would bring out many people who tend not to vote but are pro-Union

Yet we seem increasingly reliant on one polling organisation to guide us, LucidTalk. This week a survey by it was reported on BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight and The View.

The research found that in a border poll 49% of people would vote to stay in UK and 43% would opt for united Ireland (UI). Excluding don’t knows, it was a 53-47 split for UK.

LucidTalk found 66% of people in NI want a border poll at some point, 37% of them within five years.

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The former DUP advisor Tim Cairns told The View “it backs up what Peter Robinson has said in the past, that obviously unionists should be preparing for a border poll, preparing our arguments”.

But Mr Cairns also said it matters what questions are asked.

The commentator Andre Murphy, who often defends republican positions, said: “66% in the North wanting a border poll is absolutely seismic and it certainly takes away any argument from a British secretary of state not to set a date for a border poll.”

See where this is going? Such results are used to add to pressure on the secretary of state (SoS) to call a referendum. The 1998 Northern Ireland Act, which followed the Belfast Agreement of that year, says: The [SoS] shall exercise the power [to call a border poll] if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting [would back a UI].”

This apparent requirement on the SoS will be tested in the courts. Given the extent to which the law is used to try to force political change in NI, it is just a matter of when.

But there is one point that nobody made on either BBC Spotlight or The View. It is this:

It seems LucidTalk is the only pollster to find public opinion on pro/anti a UI is narrowly divided. I say “it seems” because we can’t be sure. Polls for Lord Ashcroft which showed evenly split opinions on a UI have been uncritically reported – except by us.

In June 2018, a poll commissioned by the Tory peer caused shockwaves when it found 44% support for UI, a bit below 47% for UK.

My colleague Adam Kula asked Ashcroft who had done the poll, which was carried out online between May 24 and May 28 (see link below).

Ashcroft said the “fieldwork/data collection was outsourced to a reputable external agency”, but “we don’t usually name our fieldwork suppliers”.

When a data spreadsheet linked to the survey mentioned YouGov, we asked YouGov if they carried out the research, and they said no.

The Ashcroft results were similar to a LucidTalk poll carried online earlier in May 2018, It found 45% of respondents pro UK; 42% pro UI; 13% unsure. So we asked LucidTalk if it also carried out the Ashcroft poll later that month (it did not say, see panel below).

Autumn 2019 saw the most devastating poll of all, again by Lord Ashcroft (and again based on uncited fieldwork). It found a UI lead of 51% to 49% excluding don’t knows.

This year the investigative reporter Marcus Leroux examined UI surveys in an article for Fortnight magazine, which we also published (see link below).

He found that pollsters who have reached the views of large numbers of non-voters find lower support for a UI than pollsters such as LucidTalk who have not done. This, he speculates, might reflect a large group of people who are pro-Union, don’t vote for unionist politicians or perhaps at all, yet might vote in a border poll (just as the Belfast Agreement referendum, with its 81% turnout, brought out many people who rarely vote).

Earlier this year a LucidTalk survey for Sunday Times found border poll support for the UK to be 46.8%, pro UI 42.3% (UK lead over UI was 52.5- 47.5 excluding don’t knows).

Yet the most recent Ulster University NI Life and Times survey, carried out 2019- 2020, put support for Union at 67%, for united Ireland 33% (excluding don’t knows).

I do not know which of these various polls is most accurate. I just hope I was wrong when in this column in June 2016 I wrote in favour of Remain based on my fear that Brexit could “blow the UK apart” (see link below).

My sense is that there has clearly been some movement towards a united Ireland, although lower than LucidTalk’s finding this week that 19% of respondents backed the Union until Brexit but now want a UI [The exact finding was that 19% agreed with this: “I used to support NI staying in the UK, but I would, or possibly would, now support NI joining the Republic of Ireland in a united Ireland”].

No unionist can be complacent.

I see two big risks: first, that younger and centrist voters come to think a united Ireland in the EU is a progressive and modern ideal.

Second, that nationalists who are comfortable in UK and who might sincerely tell pollsters they would vote to stay in it could, in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in the ballot box, vote by heart for UI.

Both scenarios above could be hastened by a sense of momentum towards a UI, which poll findings can generate. Thus the media needs carefully to cover all data, eg Liverpool University 2020 finding of 65% support for UK (excluding don’t knows).

Polls already have constitutional implications. Theresa May, who gave up the UK right to use even CCTV at its land border with Ireland, had reportedly been shocked by Ashcroft data.

There is a plausible case to be made that face-to-face polls understate support for UI because people in that scenario are not candid.

The 2014 Scottish referendum, 2016 Brexit vote, and the huge Trump votes of 2016/2020 showed how unpredictable things can be. They also showed how people do not always vote in the way experts claim is in their economic interest.

But there is also a plausible case that online polls under report conservative views such as unionism.

So while unionists cannot be complacent about a border poll, they must also strongly challenge the idea that there is clear evidence of a significant shift towards a united Ireland.

Other than in LucidTalk polls, there is little such evidence.

• LucidTalk explains its position on border poll findings

In 2018 we asked LucidTalk if it carried out the Ashcroft survey on attitudes to a united Ireland, the findings of which that June had been seized on by all-Ireland backers. LucidTalk had said it was running a survey from May 24 to 28 on ‘Brexit issues’ for a ‘major UK and international polling company’, the same dates Lord Ashcroft’s poll (‘Brexit, The Border And The Union’) was conducted.

Bill White, managing director of LucidTalk, responded that Lord Ashcroft polls “use a whole range of companies”. As to whether he was involved, he said: “I can’t comment on that. You’d have to talk to Lord Ashcroft Polling about that. It’s like anything. It’s client confidentiality.”

This year, Mr White said of the difference between online and face-to-face surveys: “There’s a tension in the face-to-face environment: people feel uncomfortable, perhaps subconsciously, and saying ‘don’t know’ is an easy cop-out.”

He was unapologetic about not polling a representative selection of non-voters as to their views on a border poll. “There’s no reputable polling company that would research non-voters on a hypothetical poll on a hypothetical date”, he said. “That’s witchdoctor market research.” Mr White said that he would expect a higher than normal turnout in a border poll, but said unionists had no cause to celebrate evidence that support for the Union was around 50%.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor (other articles by him below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter)

• Other articles by Ben Lowry below:

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A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers — and consequently the revenue we receive — we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.

Subscribe to newsletter.co.uk and enjoy unlimited access to the best Northern Ireland and UK news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit https://www.newsletter.co.uk/subscriptions now to sign up.

Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.

Alistair Bushe

Editor