The Guardian’s Henry McDonald reports an advance of the findings of a complex opinion survey carried out by Social Market Research Belfast for four universities and coordinated by a team including Professor Peter Shirlow, now at Liverpool. In common with the NI Life and Times opinion surveys the poll confirms a much more complex state of public opinion than a straight standoff between unionist and nationalist or a hardening of attitudes between them. A huge amount of political agnosticism is common. The more important divisions in opinion are now those of education, income and age.
On social attitudes in particular, the survey reports more liberal opinions to gay marriage and abortion among the people than among the politicians, Sinn Fein being the major exception.
My overall impression from the survey reports so far is that the political parties are operating in a bubble but are able to do so because half or more than half of the public are comparative “ don’t knows “ on many of the crunch issues the parties hold dear or could blow up in their faces . And it is those who have stronger and more conservative views, and older people who are more likely to vote. On the hand, public opinion is likely to be fairly fluid when no clear leadership is given from politicians. There is much more each party could do to reach out. Rather than giving such priority to competing for a diminishing core vote, the UUP and SDLP may be missing more than a trick or two.
The fluidity of opinion is marked in attitudes to the Assembly, now on the brink of collapse which public opinion appears not to justify.
While only 15.6% take a close interest in politics, the lowest score ever, in an apparent contradiction 66% strongly support the Assembly and about the same number support power sharing. While this is high it compares unfavourably with a similar question in 2002, which found 88% in support.
63.7% agreed/strongly agreed that that it is necessary for political stability that the DUP and Sinn Fein provide the First and Deputy First Ministers
Just under 45% agree there will be lasting peace in Northern Ireland. But the survey as I understand does not not cover degrees of militant opinion against which to measure this – on the face of it – worrying result.
Support for the PSNI was almost 67%, while an similar figure (65%) backed the power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland, which at present is in peril due to allegations that the Provisional IRA still exists and is still killing on the streets of Belfast.
The survey shows that a majority of people support the principle of consent on Northern Ireland’s continued membership of the UK. Around 65% agreed or strongly agreed with the assertion that Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK so long as a majority in the region wished to do so.
Only one in five believed there would be a united Ireland within the next 20 years
A total of 65.3% of the 18-29 age bracket wanted gay marriage laws introduced, the survey found.
Northern Ireland is also unique within the UK as it is the only region where abortion is illegal in all but a few exceptional circumstances. The largest share of voters surveyed in the poll – 44.3% – supported legalising abortion, with a small but significant number undecided.
No doubt there will be a lot more to chew over when the survey is published in full.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London