Ben Lowry: Research into levels of support for a united Ireland has become too reliant on one pollster

Last weekend a poll was published which found that the three main unionist parties were roughly neck and neck.

Saturday, 4th September 2021, 4:50 am
Updated Saturday, 4th September 2021, 4:58 am
In polls of how people would vote in a border poll, LucidTalk finds higher support for a united Ireland than do face to face surveys. LucidTalk finds opinions to be narrowly divided but the NI Life and Times survey, for example, finds support for the UK to be far ahead of that for a united Ireland

The LucidTalk survey had the Ulster Unionists slightly ahead of TUV who were slightly ahead of the DUP.

On Monday we led on reactions to the poll from the three leaders of those parties. That same morning I was asked on BBC Radio Ulster to discuss the results on the Nolan Show, alongside Alison Morris of the Belfast Telegraph, for whom the poll had been conducted.

Since it we were only giving what I thought was a brief snap reaction to the findings, I did not mention concerns that this newspaper has reported over the dominance of LucidTalk in recent political polling.

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I also judged that it would sound sour about a rival title if I used the brief chat to query the results.

Furthermore, it is clear that unionism really is now divided at least three ways, and that if that was to remain largely the case in a Stormont election it would be very hard to catch Sinn Fein as the largest party. The poll in fact had SF at 25%, which would not be their best result (they have got high 20s before).

While LucidTalk sometimes seems to overstate the centre ground in its election polling, it has on occasion been on to trends early — it was the first place I read of a possible Alliance surge in South Antrim (the party’s vote there leapt 3,000 to 8,000 from 2017 to 2019).

A concern over LucidTalk is the paucity of other pollsters carrying out such vital research. Ideally there would be several organisations carrying out political polls in NI. Polling organisations often have different methods of research, and there is great debate as to which is best — in America, for example, polling organisations have struggled in recent years to predict key elections accurately, most recently in last year’s contest between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

Theories have been mooted as to why polls have been wrong, including the idea that phone-based research was failing to reach younger generations who did not have a landline, and only used mobiles.

A greater concern with LucidTalk relates to its research into the constitutional question — asking people in Northern Ireland how they would vote in a border poll.

It is similarly dominant in the field of such polling, and has carried out more surveys on the topic than any other organisation in recent years. LucidTalk has consistently found voting intentions to be closely divided on the question of whether people in NI would like to stay in the UK or join the Republic of Ireland. Mostly it has found support for the Union to be ahead, but on occasion it has found majority support for a united Ireland (UI).

But the University of Ulster Life and Times survey finds support for the UK far ahead of that for a UI.

One possible reason for this is that LucidTalk uses polls that are largely or entirely internet based. The Life and Times survey conducts face to face interviews.

The difference in outcomes is stark. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to see how stark because all sorts of figures are quoted – 22% support for UI, 53% for UK, etc, etc

This can be confusing because such figures often do not mention the don’t knows.

The key thing to look out for is the margin between UK and UI after don’t knows are stripped out.

Doing so, an April LucidTalk poll was 53% to 47% for UK. A May 2018, LucidTalk poll was 52-48 for UK.

But the most recent Life and Times survey was 67-33 for UK (stripping out don’t knows).

Some pundits think face to face polling is more rigorous and accurate. Others say people are less likely in such an environment to admit things such as a united Ireland.

I can believe either argument. But ven if the actual public position is somewhere between internet and face-to-face findings, the margin in favour of the UK over UI would not be as narrow as LucidTalk says.

I made these points at the end of the Nolan show, not having known the programme was going to query LucidTalk methodology.

Views on a border poll are hard to establish because people who do not normally vote might take part. But such poll data is of huge significance. A secretary of state could be forced into a border poll if UI support is said to be consistently high.

Given concerns over methods and big ranges in findings, I think it was inappropriate for BBC Spotlight to commission LucidTalk in April (let alone to ask questions such as whether a united Ireland should have an NHS, as if to make the prospect more enticing).

Ben Lowry (@Benlowry2) is News Letter acting editor

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Ben Lowry

Acting Editor