Owen Polley: Unconvincing poll was twisted by pundits to support the Northern Ireland Protocol

There are many ways to promote an opinion, but one reliable technique is to devise a poll that asks leading questions, commission the company that is most likely to return amenable data and cherry-pick headline grabbing results.

By Owen Polley
Saturday, 30th October 2021, 10:12 am
Updated Monday, 1st November 2021, 11:15 am
In a data-light Queen's University report, the poll asked if “The Protocol is on balance good for NI", which appeared worded in a way that invited a positive response. The narrow majority for this was the result the academics chose to highlight, implying that unionist opposition to an Irish Sea border is out of step with public opinion
In a data-light Queen's University report, the poll asked if “The Protocol is on balance good for NI", which appeared worded in a way that invited a positive response. The narrow majority for this was the result the academics chose to highlight, implying that unionist opposition to an Irish Sea border is out of step with public opinion

It’s a tactic used frequently by PR companies, lobbyists and political parties.

Traditionally, we would expect better from universities, where research is supposed to be rigorous and impartial.

Increasingly, though, academia and activism are hard to tell apart.

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This week, Queen’s University published its coyly named “Testing the Temperature” poll into the public’s attitudes to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

This survey was conducted by LucidTalk, whose methods have been questioned critically by, among others, this newspaper’s reporter Adam Kula, the BBC’s Stephen Nolan and investigative journalist, Marcus Leroux.

The company comprises one director, Bill White, who is now also its sole employee.

It uses a self-selecting “opinion panel” of volunteers, who fill in questionnaires on the internet.

In a flimsy, data-light 12 page report, QUB acknowledges that its survey is not based “on systematic random polling across NI society.” Instead, it gauges the opinions of voters “who take an interest in current affairs and politics”.

The poll’s headline question asked whether “The Protocol is on balance a good thing for NI.”

A narrow majority of 52% agreed either strongly or to some degree with this statement, which appeared to be worded in a way that invited a positive response.

This was the result that the university’s academics and most media reports chose to highlight, implying that unionists’ opposition to an Irish Sea border is out of step with public opinion.

Another question seemed to me to invite the panel to agree with the proposition that “particular arrangements are necessary” for Northern Ireland after Brexit and endorse the opinion that the “Protocol is appropriate for managing Brexit impact on NI.”

There was less attention given to the fact that “a substantial majority of respondents” thought the Protocol was having “a negative impact on a range of matters”.

They said, for example, that it was damaging UK-EU relations, British-Irish relations, NI’s place in the UK internal market, political stability in NI and NI’s constitutional place in the UK.

Remember that QUB admits that Lucid Talk’s panel is made up of people who are more politically motivated than the general population.

The report’s authors claim rather pre-emptively that this means it reflects the opinions of those “who are likely to exercise their right to vote”.

In Fortnight Magazine, Marcus Leroux found (in an article reproduced in this newspaper, to which the web version of this article will link, see below) that, actually, discrepancies between the results of polls by Lucid Talk and those conducted by rival companies suggest Bill White’s company misses the views of “scundered unionists” who support the Union, but feel let down by unionist political parties.

If the survey’s respondents acknowledge that the Protocol damages NI’s constitutional position, weakens its membership of the British internal market and undermines political stability, but still think it is a good thing, it seems many are motivated by their desire to break-up the United Kingdom.

Equally, the poll finds that, even though a majority feel good information about the Protocol is not available, 75% of voters believe they understand it well.

That is a claim that I would be very shy of making, after following every kink of the Brexit negotiations for five years and reading more EU and UK papers on Northern Ireland than a normal person would think healthy.

This overconfidence may explain why over half the people surveyed thought that the Protocol has a positive impact on the economy.

Some pro-EU voices and nationalists have claimed that dividing Northern Ireland from its most important market represents an opportunity for businesses. They support their argument by pointing to growth in sales to the Republic.

This is an unsupported and dishonest theory, as there are no equivalent figures measuring the decline in sales to Great Britain, or the impact of higher costs on Ulster companies.

Indeed, the economist Esmond Birnie, who actually knows what he’s talking about, estimates that the Irish Sea border takes £850 million per year out of our economy.

Even if we were to set aside the highly politicised nature of the poll’s respondents, with all the problems that entails, the results show that Northern Ireland’s population is divided starkly on the Protocol issue.

Its supporters, who once demanded that it was implemented rigorously, are now in favour of lenient enforcement, because the difficulties it causes are impossible to deny.

That is with many of its most demanding features delayed by ‘grace periods’ and ongoing negotiations.

Even if the poll results represented an irreproachable statement of support for the Protocol, the arrangement would still be incompatible with Northern Ireland playing a full and integral role in the United Kingdom.

The Belfast Agreement allowed voters here to choose between remaining part of the UK, in a stable, successful nation state that has given them a good standard of living, or joining an Irish separatist state, with the social and political turmoil that would ensue. It does not offer some kind of pick and mix option, with voters opting for a little Britain here, a little Dublin there and some EU for extra crunch.

The Protocol is a dangerous and disruptive arrangement that is destabilising Northern Ireland right now.

No amount of cherry-picked polling by its proponents will show otherwise.

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