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.
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.
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
Other articles by Ben Lowry below, and beneath that information on how to subscribe to the News Letter:
• Ben Lowry Aug 28: Lagan Valley shows the challenges facing both unionism and Alliance
• Ben Lowry Aug 21: Unionists are more vulnerable to the fall of Stormont than republicans
Ben Lowry Aug 21: Bigwigs should realise that there is no holiday before retirement
• Ben Lowry Aug 14: The collapse of Kabul to the Taliban will be seen as a sign of western weakness
• Ben Lowry Aug 7: Covid has been a bewildering and humbling pandemic
• Ben Lowry Aug 7: Now I understand those older people who want cooler summer weather
• Ben Lowry Aug 2: Three points to keep in mind when arguing against the NI Protocol
• Ben Lowry July 31: The last NI housing boom was disaster, and we need to beware a repeat
• Ben Lowry July 24: Hot weather ought to be welcome in NI but this is extreme
• Ben Lowry July 17: UK has tipped into an amnesty after a long approach to IRA that lacked bite
• Ben Lowry July 15: We should be honest as to how we have arrived at a Troubles amnesty
• Ben Lowry July 10: We will find soon if UK is for once going to criticise Ireland
• Ben Lowry July 10: I once always wanted England to lose, now I want them to win
• Ben Lowry July 3: The mild DUP response to the protocol will cause Boris little concern
• Ben Lowry June 26: Neither Dublin nor IRA have been put under any pressure on legacy
• Ben Lowry June 26: A slight sense of sadness as the days again begin to shorten
• Ben Lowry June 19: Somehow the appeasement of Sinn Fein got worse
• Ben Lowry May 22: Instead of ‘moving on’ from IRA funeral, we still need proper answers
• Ben Lowry May 22: If Joel Keys, 19, wants to help unionism he should get a law degree
• Ben Lowry May 15: Edwin Poots and Doug Beattie will offer two distinct shades of unionism
• Ben Lowry May 8: Formal UK ideas for an amnesty are almost exactly 20 years old
• Ben Lowry May 8: Let us hope that the brilliant Eoghan Harris keeps on writing
• Ben Lowry May 1: Unionism can’t just be about managing long-term defeat
• Ben Lowry April 17: DUP still has to choose between managing this disaster or total rejection of it
• Ben Lowry April 10: His enduring marriage to the Queen was key to our understanding of Prince Philip
• Ben Lowry Mar 20: We have made it through the worst of the dark, dreaded winter lockdown
• Ben Lowry Mar 20: MLAs lost control of abortion by rejecting modest law reform
• Ben Lowry Mar 13: Scotland tunnel isn’t fantasy, but something kids of today might see
• Ben Lowry Mar 6: The cost of victims’ pension has ballooned without explanation as to why
• Ben Lowry Feb 20: We still lack answers as to why IRA funeral got special treatment at Roselawn
• Ben Lowry Feb 13: Peter Robinson has long experience of what is and is not politically feasible
• Ben Lowry Jan 30: At last, clear reason for UK and unionists to stop being weak towards Ireland/EU
• Ben Lowry Jan 16: The Irish Sea border was imposed because UK knew unionists would take it
• Ben Lowry in 2020: Last night unionists celebrated a move towards Irish unity
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