Lord Ashcroft: My Northern Ireland polling shows a swing to the Union. But nationalists feel events are heading their way.

13 Dec

Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster. For information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, visit www.lordashcroft.com.

Two years ago, my polling found a wafer-thin majority among Northern Ireland’s voters for unification with the Republic. My latest research, published today, shows a clear swing back towards remaining in the United Kingdom – an echo of the fall in support in recent months for Scottish independence.

But as I also found in my survey of over 3,000 voters and focus group discussions throughout the province, it is the nationalists who feel things are heading their way.

Unification, or the Union?

Asked how they would vote in a referendum or “border poll” tomorrow, 49 per cent said they would vote to stay in the UK, 41 per cent said they would choose a united Ireland, and one in ten said they were undecided: a majority of 54 per cent to 46 per cent for the Union among those voting.

While more than 19 out of 20 DUP and Sinn Féin voters backed the UK and unification respectively, SDLP ones backed a united Ireland by 56 per cent to 12 per cent, with nearly one in three saying they didn’t know.

Four in ten Alliance voters were undecided, with the remainder backing Irish unification by 35 per cent to 25 per cent. Support for a united Ireland declined sharply with age: 71 per cent of those aged 18 to 24 said they would choose unification with the Republic.

More than a quarter (27 per cent) of voters said they had changed their mind as to whether Northern Ireland should stay in the UK, including 16 per cent saying they had done so more than once. More than three in 10 women, 38 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 71 per cent of those who described themselves as neutral on the constitution said they had changed their mind at least once. Protestants (86 per cent) were more likely than Catholics (64 per cent) to say they had never changed their view on the matter.

What would the result be tomorrow – and in 10 years?

More than 6 in 10 (63 per cent) said they thought Northern Ireland would vote to stay in the UK in a referendum tomorrow – but by 51 per cent to 34 per cent, they thought a border poll in ten years’ time would produce a majority for a united Ireland.

While nine in ten unionists thought voters would choose the UK in an immediate border poll, only 64 per cent thought this would be the outcome a decade from now. More than three quarters of SDLP voters and 95 per cent of Sinn Féin supporters said they thought a referendum in 10 years would result in a united Ireland.

The longer view

Looking at the longer term, just over half (52 per cent) of all voters said they expected Northern Ireland still to be part of the UK in ten years’ time. However, only 36 per cent thought this would still be the case in 20 years, and only 25 per cent in 50 years.

While nationalists overwhelmingly expected Northern Ireland to be out of the UK within 20 years, two thirds (67 per cent) of unionists thought they would still be part of the Union at that stage. However, fewer than half (47 per cent) of unionists thought the status quo would still prevail in 50 years; 23 per cent said they thought Ulster would have left by then, and 30 per cent said they didn’t know.

What would be different in a united Ireland?

Voters as a whole were more likely to think that food and energy prices, housing costs, tax rates and unemployment (but also business investment) would be higher in a united Ireland than that they would be lower. Public spending and welfare benefits were thought more likely to be lower than higher.


By a small margin, voters thought equality and “parity of esteem” for different communities would be better in a united Ireland rather than worse – though 78 per cent of unionists thought the opposite. Overall, more thought the standard of living for most people was more likely to be worse in a united Ireland than better.

In focus group discussions, it was clear that these considerations weighed heavily with many voters. Those who liked the idea of Irish unity in principle often mentioned the cost of living and healthcare charges as balancing factors.

What do Westminster and Dublin want?

Northern Ireland voters were more likely to think the Westminster government would like to see the province leave the UK than that it would prefer it to stay. Only just over one in ten (11 per cent), and only just over half (56 per cent) of unionists, thought Westminster very much wanted to keep Ulster in the Union. A quarter thought the UK government didn’t mind either way, while more than four in ten thought it would prefer (26 per cent) or very much wanted (16 per cent) for Northern Ireland to leave.

In our focus groups, voters on all sides said they thought Northern Ireland was an “inconvenience” or an “afterthought” for the rest of the UK. The “levelling up” agenda seemed to apply to the north of England, rather than anywhere further afield.

At the same time, only just over half (52 per cent) of Northern Ireland voters thought the Irish government in Dublin would either prefer (38 per cent) or very much wanted (14 per cent) for Ulster to join the Republic in a united Ireland. Two thirds of nationalists thought Dublin would like to see a united Ireland, compared to just under half (46 per cent) of unionists.

Brexit and the Protocol

A clear majority (63 per cent, including 19 per cent of those who had voted Leave) said they thought leaving the EU had been the wrong decision as far as Northern Ireland was concerned. Two thirds of unionists thought it had been the right decision, while 95 per cent of nationalists thought it had been a mistake.

Nearly nine in ten voters (88 per cent) thought Brexit had been at least partly to blame for shortages of food and other goods in Northern Ireland shops; 62 per cent said it had been a major factor.

Unionists, however, were more likely to blame the pandemic and (especially) the Northern Ireland Protocol. Nearly eight in 10 (78 per cent) of them, including 89 per cent of 2017 DUP voters, said they thought the Protocol had been a major cause of shortages, compared to 38 per cent of unionists who said the same of Brexit more generally.

One in three voters – including 66 per cent of unionists, 83 per cent of 2017 DUP voters and 96 per cent of those saying they are likely to vote for Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) at the next Assembly election – said they thought the Protocol was wrong in principle and should be scrapped. A further nine per cent said the Protocol as it stands was too much of a burden and needed serious reform.

Another 36 per cent, including two thirds of Alliance voters and a quarter of UUP voters, said they thought the Protocol would be acceptable with some adjustments. Just over one in five (21 per cent) of Northern Ireland voters overall, including a majority (56 per cent) of those who voted for Sinn Féin in 2017, said they thought there were no problems with the Protocol.

Parties, leaders, and the next Assembly elections

Asked how positive or negative they felt about Northern Ireland’s political leaders, voters as a whole gave the highest scores to Doug Beattie of the UUP, Naomi Long of the Alliance Party, and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood.

Those who voted for the DUP in the 2017 Assembly elections rated the TUV leader, Jim Allister, higher than the DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, and the First Minister, Paul Givan – as did voters as a whole. Many in our focus groups lamented what they regarded as the lack of clear leadership at Stormont, especially with the roles of First Minister and DUP leader being held by different people.

Asked how likely they were to vote for each party at the next Assembly elections, DUP voters were the least likely to say would stick with their 2017 party.

Taking those who rated their chances of voting for a particular party at 90/100 or above, we find Sinn Féin ahead on 25 per cent with the DUP on 16 per cent, the Alliance on 14 per cent, TUV on 12 per cent and the UUP and SDLP each on 10 per cent. In our focus groups, voters on all sides felt there was a very good chance of Sinn Féin becoming the largest party and winning the First Minister post in 2022.

The full report, Ulster and the Union: the view from the North is available for free at LordAshcroftPolls.com.

Peter Franklin: Ten reasons why Labour isn’t dead yet

27 Sep

Peter Franklin is an Associate Editor of UnHerd.

Here’s something to cheer up the gloomiest Tory: the Labour Party.

Out of power for eleven years and counting. Four general election defeats in a row. The loss of Scotland in 2015. The loss of the Red Wall in 2019. The loss of Hartlepool in 2021 (in a by-election, to a fourth-term Tory government).

This year’s party conference was a chance for a fresh start. But, so far, it’s been a disaster — featuring a 12,500 word “essay” that nobody read; an absurd statement on female anatomy; and a watered-down attempt to change the party rules on leadership elections.

That last one sums up the futility of last eleven years. Since 2010, Labour has elected three leaders. The third leader is using up his political capital on trying to reverse the first leader’s biggest mistake in the hope that no one like the second leader is ever elected again.

If Conservatives don’t take the Labour Party seriously, one can hardly blame them. And yet that could prove to be a big mistake. Labour is a much stronger foe than immediate appearances suggest.

Here are ten reasons why:

1) An irreducible core of support

I’m old enough to remember when the Conservative Party was in the same position that Labour is today. In fact from 1997 to 2005 we had 40 fewer seats than Labour’s current tally. At the time there were those who pronounced the party’s decline to be irreversible. And yet, even at the lowest ebb, the Tories never lost their major party status. There was an irreducible core of Conservative support (roughly 30 per cent of the electorate) and a heartland that held out against Tony Blair.

The same is true of Labour in 2021. The Red Wall may have fallen, but there are other red walls — the big cities, the Welsh Valleys and a sprinkling of university towns. These are still standing.

2) A plausible Prime Minister

I used to think that Keir Starmer was a poor leader of the Labour Party, but a good Leader of the Opposition. However, I’ve now seen enough his performances to convince me he’s bad at both.

He is, in the words of Ruth Davidson, “a dud” — except, that is, for one redeeming quality: you could imagine him in the role of Prime Minister. I mean that literally. If he was an actor and British politics a TV drama (yes, yes, same difference) — then one could plausibly cast him as the leader of his country.

The same could never have been said of Ed Miliband or Jeremy Corbyn. So in that respect Labour’s taken a big step forward.

3) The German model

Of course, plausibility isn’t the same thing as popularity. And Starmer certainly doesn’t have the latter. But then neither did his German opposite number, Olaf Scholz — also a dull social democrat. And yet over the course of the German general election campaign he emerged as the voters’ favourite to succeed Angela Merkel.

Scholz didn’t receive a charisma transplant, he just stood out as the best of bad bunch. Admittedly that’s not the most vaulting of ambitions for Starmer, but sometimes it’s all you need.

4) Time for a change?

Tories don’t have to buy into theories of a centre-left revival to view the Germany result with concern. They just have to remember that, eventually, voters get fed up with having the same old party in power. After 16 years of CDU-led governments, it’s clear that German voters wanted something different.

By the time of the next British general election, we’ll have had 13 or 14 years of Tory-led government. If British voters decide time’s up, then the only alternative to a Conservative Prime Minister is a Labour Prime Minister.

5) A reservoir of potential voters

According to the polls, Labour is still stuck in the low-to-mid-thirties. That’s not enough. So where do the extra votes come from?

Well don’t forget the other parties of the centre-left. Between them, the Lib Dems and the Greens have got nearly 20 per cent in the polls. If Labour can squeeze that — especially in marginal seats where they’re best placed to win — then they’re back in business.

6) Brexit fade

And there’s another potential source of votes: people who voted Labour as recently as 2017, but who broke with the party over Brexit.

But how long will the Brexit effect last? Five years, ten years, a generation? Or is it already fading away? We just don’t know because we’ve never been here before.

I suspect that the only permanent loyalty among Red Wall voters is to not being taken for granted. Best not to let them down, then.

7) The spectre of 2017

One doesn’t have to speculate about Labour consolidating the left-leaning vote, because it’s happened once already.

I know that everyone except the Corbynites would rather forget, but in 2017 Labour won 40 per cent of the vote.

Can we be sure that there’s no potential for a second consolidation? Yes, it’s a nightmare scenario — but sometimes nightmares come true.

8) Coalition partners

Labour’s own nightmare is that’s they’ll never win a majority again. However, that doesn’t mean that they won’t be able to form a government. In fact, in the event of hung parliament, Labour now has an overwhelming advantage over the Conservatives.

Of the parties currently represented in the Commons, potential partners for Labour include any or all of the following: the SNP, the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, the SDLP, the Alliance and (perhaps) the DUP.

How many of those would conceivably join a Conservative-led coalition (or prop up a minority government)? Well, after Ed Davey’s announcement last week, just the DUP — and they’re in decline.

So let’s be clear about this: an inconclusive election result almost certainly means a Labour-led government.

9) A new leader

Even if there’s no repeat of the 2017 scenario, there is another precedent to watch out for — 1994. That was the last time that Labour got tired of losing — and chose an electable leader.

But does Labour today have the equivalent of a Tony Blair? It does, and his name is Dan Jarvis — a political moderate, a former British Army officer and an MP for a northern seat. A sane Labour Party would have elected him leader five years ago, but a fifth successive general election might just bring them to their senses.

Jarvis has been in semi-exile from Westminster politics, serving as Mayor of the South Yorkshire metro region since 2018. Significantly, he’s now stepping down from that role. Perhaps, he’s got his eye on another position?

10) The coming red wave

Finally, let’s look far beyond the next general election — which we can do by looking at generational voting patterns.

It’s an over-simplification to say that old people vote Conservative and young people vote Labour — but it’s never been closer to the truth than it is today.

Of course, a pensioner’s vote is every bit as valid as anybody else’s – but that doesn’t just change the fact that the Grim Reaper is on Labour’s side.

One might hope that younger voters will turn Tory as they mature, but why would they if we continue to exclude them from home ownership? If we fail to turn that around, then Labour’s future looks a lot brighter than its present.

Poots and Faulkner

15 May

In 1970, James Chichester-Clark resigned as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, and as Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister.  He was being pulled in opposite political directions by two different political forces.

The first was Harold Wilson’s Government, which was set on wrestlng control of security policy away from Stormont.  The second was Iain Paisley’s new Protestant Unionist Party, which had recently won two Westminster by-elections.

Chichester-Clark was succeeded by Brian Faulkner, whose earlier resignation from Northern Ireland’s government had been a factor in forcing the resignation of Chichester-Clark’s predecessor, Terence O’Neill.

Faulkner had earlier stood against Chichester-Clark for the Ulster Unionist leadership, losing by a single vote – that cast by O’Neill for Chicester-Clark…his cousin.

Faulkner had served as Northern Ireland’s Minister of Home Affairs during the late 1950s and early 1960s, where he built his reputation as an energetic politician on the right of his party – one that his resignation from O’Neill’s government had done nothing to weaken.

Once Prime Minister, he duly found himself caught between the same pressures as his predecessor.  Forced to choose between a revolting Unionist base and Edward Heath’s Government, he plumped for the latter.

The consequence was his acceptance of the Sunningdale Agreement, a forerunner of the Belfast Agreement, which brought him down – or, rather, was itself brought down by the loyalist Ulster Workers’ Council Strike.

Faulkner then lost the leadership of his party, formed the new Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, which flopped, and left active politics in 1976, becoming Baron Faulkner of Downpatrick a year later.

There are many differences between Faulkner and Edwin Poots, yesterday elected as the new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party.  For a start, Poots will not lead Northern Ireland’s government, as Faulkner did when he became Ulster Unionist leader.

The Alliance Party, which sits nearer the centre of Northern Ireland’s politics, is better developed than it was in 1970, and is well positioned to pick up more middle-class Unionist votes.

And unlike Chichester-Clark, Arlene Foster hasn’t resigned: she continues as First Minister.  Rather, she was ousted by her own party from its leadership.

For all that, and despite Northern Ireland’s changes over 50 years, it shouldn’t be assumed that politics in Northern Ireland must follow a pre-determined script.

Because Poots is a member of the Free Presbytarian Church of Ulster, a young earth creationist, and opposes blood donations from gay people, it is widely assumed that he will tread a very narrow path.

Certainly, he defeated Sir Jeffrey Donaldson by 19 votes to 17 partly, even largely, because the unionist base is again in revolt – over the Northern Ireland Protocol, the treatment of Bobby Storey’s funeral, and a general sense that its position is under threat.

The turbulence is not as spectacular as that of 1970, but those DUP politicians will hope that Poots’ election will help to reassure Unionist voters, and bolster their own position – as their Ulster Unionist predecessors did of Faulkner’s.

And the new DUP has begun his leadership with that task in mind. “I will be a leader in unionism who will be reaching out to other leaders in unionism. I want to see unionism working together,” he said yesterday.

More broadly, the lack of political leadership in Northern Ireland’s government, the non-sitting of the Assembly for three years, the stalling of the 2015 “Fresh Start for Northern Ireland” programme, and the problems caused by the Protocol are driving a wider destabilisation.

Elections are only a year away, and Sinn Fein could emerge as the largest party – a prospect that does nothing to calm unionists.  So for all Boris Johnson’s lack of interest in Northern Ireland, don’t rule out a big political push from the Government later this year.

It would seek to bolster the Executive, take decisions that have been ducked on legacy, emblems, and the Irish language, and aim to hold Northern Ireland’s politicians to the commitments they signed up to in 2015.

These included the “fresh obligations on Northern Ireland’s elected representatives to work together on their shared objective of ridding society of all forms of paramilitary activity and groups” which the Executive then agreed to.

Poots will probably carry on where he is leaving off and, unlike Faulkner, refuse any compromises that London dangles before him.  But perhaps not.  With Northern Ireland, you never know.

Henry Hill: Why Foster’s exit most likely signals an even harder like against the Protocol from the DUP

29 Apr

Arlene Foster’s sudden resignation as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and First Minister of Northern Ireland is the latest sign of how long a shadow the Protocol is casting over Ulster politics.

Whilst it isn’t the only thing that seems to have motivated the party to oust her – critics are also citing a decision to abstain on a vote on gay conversion therapy – it almost certainly played the decisive role.

Having been DUP leader throughout the Brexit process, Foster seemed initially disposed to try and own the outcome and make the new checks in the Irish Sea work, an outlook she would have shared with Michael Gove.

But the scale of the unionist and loyalist backlash against the ‘Sea Border’ has put paid to that, and the DUP are now scrambling to avoid haemorrhaging voters to more hardline parties at the next Stormont elections. Jim Allister and his hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) are well positioned to attack the DUP on this flank, and public anger is such that their usual defensive position (that splitting the unionist vote might let Sinn Fein claim the First Minister’s office) may not fly.

Given that the DUP, like Sinn Fein and the SNP, has traditionally had the culture of phalanx-like internal discipline that seems a hallmark of nationalist parties, those behind the putsch must have feared a truly dire electoral reckoning if action wasn’t taken.

Moreover, many senior DUP figures will be uncomfortably aware of the historical precedent, for such is pretty much exactly the same fate they inflicted on David Trimble and the Ulster Unionists after the latter did the heavy lifting to secure the Belfast Agreement. The rise of the DUP by contrast was followed by the St Andrews Agreement, which is widely regarded as having turned out to be a step backwards. Will history repeat itself with the TUV?

According to the Daily Telegraph, ministers are unenthusiastic about the prospect of a new DUP leader, who they expect will take a much harder line on the Protocol. But in theory at least the Government has already accepted the need for fundamental reform – that was the logic of David Frost’s appointment as explained to me last month.

The even more serious question is what happens to Northern Irish politics. Whilst a new and more hard-line leader could staunch the flow of voters to the TUV, it might also alienate more moderate voters who have rowed in behind the DUP as it cemented its position as the dominant Unionist party. In recent history this would almost certainly have profited the Alliance Party, but given that liberal unionists share many of the same concerns over the Protocol and a one-sided reading of the Belfast Agreement. So it could create an opening for the Ulster Unionists or even – with enough work, money, and time – the Conservatives.

But the devolved institutions could be on the line. One of the DUP’s most effective tactics for corralling pro-UK voters into their camp has been the fear that a divided unionist vote will see Sinn Fein win the First Minister’s office. Whilst this logic has helped to keep Ulster’s politics stuck in the sectarian cul-de-sac, there is truth to it. Would the DUP, under a more hard-line leader, consent to serve as Deputy First Minister. The alternative could be unionists doing what Sinn Fein did a few years before and bringing down Stormont, and this time it might not come back.

Of course, we should not rule out another possibility. Until just a few years ago the combined unionist parties had a fairly secure majority in the Assembly. Those voters haven’t all died or turned suddenly into nationalists, and circumstances may give the DUP a chance to lure them back.

During the negotiations that saw Stormont given an opportunity to reject (most of) the Protocol, the Irish/EU side insisted that it not be done on a cross-community basis. So long as unionists are in the minority, this will prevent them blocking the Protocol on the basis of their community vote alone. But in the event that they were to regain the majority they held only a few years ago, it means they could set it aside in the teeth of Sinn Fein’s opposition.

‘Unionist unity’ is a self-defeating long-term strategy. But it can deliver results in the short-term. A united anti-Protocol front might be the DUP’s best chance of retaining the leadership of unionism – regardless of the headaches it causes in Dublin, Brussels, or London.