The times, are they a-changing? The weekend was marked by a sensational new LucidTalk poll for the Belfast Telegraph. The scores on the doors, with each party’s 2017 election performance in brackets:
Sinn Féin: 25 per cent (27.9 per cent)
Ulster Unionist Party: 16 per cent (12.9 per cent)
Traditional Unionist Voice: 14 per cent (2.6 per cent)
Democratic Unionist Party: 13 per cent (28.1 per cent)
Alliance: 13 per cent (9.1 per cent)
Social Democratic and Labour Party: 13 per cent (11.9 per cent)
Yes, that is the DUP – which has finished first in every election since 2003, whether to Stormont or Westminster – in fourth place. The party’s problem is that it is losing moderate voters to the UUP, which has been revitalised under Doug Beattie’s leadership, while also losing voters to the TUV on their other flank. The scattering of the unionist vote means that Sinn Féin would, if these figures were repeated at the next Stormont election, hold the post of First Minister for the first time.
It would be a mistake to see the DUP’s problems as solely a result of the Northern Ireland border protocol, though that doesn’t help. But it’s part of a broader set of issues that, taken together, mean that the future for unionism looks in doubt. As a result, unionist voters are looking around for options other than the DUP, which as the predominant unionist party these past 20 years, inevitably will bear much of the responsibility for unionism’s present predicament.
Now, it may be that in the heat of an election campaign, and with a small helping hand from Stormont’s single transferable vote system, where voters rank every party numerically – rewarding hard-working incumbents and politicians and parties that are “transfer-friendly” (that is, parties that are more likely to pick up third and fourth preferences from across the political and constitutional spectrum) – things look very different. Significantly better for the DUP, significantly worse for the TUV, perhaps.
But equally, as the UUP discovered for itself back in the early 2000s, when a party looks to be in trouble, defections and splits can deprive it of the benefits of having household names and well-recognised incumbents. One way or another, a high-stakes election lies ahead in May 2022.