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.

Iain Dale: Very little shocks me. But Cummings’ text message reveal was truly disgusting and morally bankrupt.

18 Jun

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Negotiating a deal with the DUP and Sinn Féin can’t be anyone’s idea of a dream job, but Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary has enabled it to happen in record time. I’ve no idea how he did it, given the personalities involved, but however it happened, it surely has to be welcomed by everyone across the political spectrum, both in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Let’s hope it lasts.

However, with the resignation of Edwin Poots as leader of the DUP after only three weeks last night, it’s entirely possible that the new First Minister, Paul Givan – an ally of Poots – might feel duty bound to fall on his sword too. My instinct is that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is likely to be the next DUP leader and he’s on record saying that he thinks the same person should hold both posts.

The elections to Stormont next year are certainly going to be interesting. Between now and then the whole sorry situation with the Northern Ireland Protocol has to be sorted. Surely a piece of cake for a man who negotiated a power sharing agreement! Sorry, Brandon.

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Anyone who has worked in politics will have some fairly fruity exchanges in historic texts on their mobile phone. I certainly have built up a whole library over the years, although it has to be said mine tend to be in emails rather than texts. My former colleagues at Biteback would regularly suggest we published a volume of my “special emails”. I well remember one to Michael Winner, where I basically told him never to speak to any of my staff again, after he called our young female PR assistant a “c***” on the phone.

One suspects he would have got on well with Dominic Cummings. Very little shocks me, but to reveal text exchanges with the Prime Minister like he has is truly disgusting. Morally it’s bankrupt, ethically it stinks. You can argue a public interest point all you like, but it is still wrong. If ministers can’t communicate confidentially with their advisers, how can they possibly do their jobs properly?

In the end, if Cummings thought the Prime Minister was so useless, why did he stay in his job? I’m sure there are many valid things Cummings has to say, but actions like this undermines any remaining credibility he enjoys. Mind you, he undermined himself earlier this week when he informed us we would have to pay to his Substack account (or should that be Shelfstack?) if we wanted the full unvarnished details of his thoughts on this, that and everything. Again, morally bankrupt.

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From a PR and organisational viewpoint the G7 was an unalloyed success. The pictures that emerged from it were simply outstanding. Whoever had the idea to hold the summit in Cornwall, and whoever did the “advance” work deserves a medal at the very least. The backdrops to virtually every event were breathtaking, and will have done the Cornish tourism industry a huge amount of good in the medium term.

Substantively, I’m not sure the summit achieved a huge amount behind the things which had been agreed in advance. The media were desperate to ramp up a row over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and Macron did his best to help them, but it never really materialised. Joe Biden showed he was the adult in the room by not playing ball, and avoided playing up to his voters of Irish descent in the US.

The Irish lobby in Congress is something to behold and you have to filter anything the American government says on Ireland through that prism. The Irish embassy in Washington DC is one of the most powerful influences on US administrations of both colours. Rhetoric on Ireland on Capitol Hill doesn’t always match the reality of the US government’s position.

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The issue of vaccines in care homes is one that has gradually risen in prominence up the news agenda, and rightly so. I cannot for the life of me understand how a care professional would not take a vaccine which by definition reduces the risk for the people they care for of getting Covid or dying from it.

Vaccines can never be 100 per cent effective, so no one can ever be completely protected. In a phone-in on Wednesday I spoke to a care home owner in Bournemouth who said that 60 per cent of her staff hadn’t had the vaccine and she wasn’t remotely bothered. Astonishing. She said proper PPE was far more important and it wasn’t up to her to persuade her staff to take a vaccine, it was up to the Government.

I’m afraid she got the rough edge of my tongue. For me it comes down to something very simple. If I had a close relative in a care home, I would not want them being cared for by someone who hadn’t been vaccinated. I don’t think that’s unreasonable. And for that reason I support mandatory vaccinations for care home workers.

Henry Hill: Could the fallout from the Protocol yet split the DUP?

10 Jun

Whilst Joe Biden’s ham-fisted intervention in the debate over the Protocol has stolen the headlines, the ramifications of the sea border for Northern Irish politics – and particularly Unionist politics – are still working themselves out.

The Democratic Unionists are in an invidious position. They need to simultaneously try and keep the Province’s ever-fragile institutions on the road, whilst also staunching a loss of support to the hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) over the Protocol.

Edwin Poots, their new leader, seems to have adopted a double-headed strategy by declining to become First Minister. Instead he is taking a tough line, calling on the Government to ‘unilaterally protect Northern Ireland’ in the event that Brussels won’t make the necessary concessions.

This could free up Paul Givan, the party’s candidate for the First Minister’s office, to strike a tone closer to that of Paul Frew, the new Economy Minister, whom the Belfast Telegraph reports talking up the DUP’s willingness to overlook Sinn Fein’s IRA links and lockdown breaches for the sake of governing.

Whether or not this will work remains to be seen. Sinn Fein have already threatened to block Givan’s appointment unless Poots offers a “cast iron” guarantee of an Irish Language Act. This immediately highlights how the new First Minister’s fate will not rest in his own hands. This impression is only bolstered by his CV: Givan started out as a part-time assistant in Poots’ constituency office, and later served him as a special adviser.

For his part, Brandon Lewis has criticised the new double-headed arrangement. Speaking to the News Letter, the Secretary of State pointed out that all the official structures for consulting between London and Belfast focused on devolved office-holders, not behind-the-scenes party leaders.

Nor is it obvious that Poots’ grip on the DUP is as secure as it might be. He has moved to secure his position with a dramatic purge of Arlene Foster’s top team. Whilst this has presumably produced a new one more loyal to himself, senior figures left outside the tent have attacked his failure to reach out. Taken alongside Jeffrey Donaldson’s claim that the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) threatened his leadership campaign, and it doesn’t seem entirely beyond the realm of possibility that the DUP might split.

If the Conservative Party is as serious as it sometimes says it is about making Ulster’s position in the Union work, it ought to be giving serious consideration to whether a potential split could give it another opportunity to try and offer a better alternative to the Province’s pro-UK voters. There will be understandable reluctance following the failure of the party’s alliance with the Ulster Unionists in 2010, but it ought to be a central feature of Tory unionism that British citizens in Northern Ireland deserve equal citizenship and a chance to vote for the parties of government.

Notwithstanding that, there is also a serious danger that if the party can’t secure its position as unionism’s dominant party, the split vote at the next Stormont election might leave Sinn Fein the largest party. Doubtless there is a wing of the DUP that would be prepared to install Michelle O’Neill as First Minister for the sake of getting to be ministers, but such a move would risk another backlash from unionist voters already angry over the Protocol.

If there are enough of them, the unionist parties might refuse to form an Executive – and unlike previous collapses, which were largely about getting Westminster to make hard decisions or stump up more money, this time it might not come back. Is Lewis prepared to do what his predecessors would not, and actually govern Northern Ireland?