It’s early days, minds could change later, but the Belfast Telegraph’s latest poll will send shivers down the DUP’s spine. According to Lucid Talk, support for the DUP has dropped to 16%, the same as Alliance. Sinn Fein sits at 25%. Doug Beattie will take comfort from the figure for the UUP, up two points to 14%.
A Sinn Fein First Minister has been a possibility since the 2017 Assembly election. Based on these figures, Sinn Fein will clinch the post in 2022. That will be a huge test for the DUP, unionism and the devolved institutions.
When Edwin Poots was appointed leader, the journalist Peter Foster quoted a DUP insider as saying that the party was having its “Jeremy Corbyn moment. “ They didn’t mean that the party had appointed a socialist. They meant that the party was walking itself into electoral oblivion. I bet that DUP insider is reading today’s figures from behind their hands.
It’s important not to overstate one poll. We’ll know if the Lucid Talk trend is taking hold if it starts to appear in other surveys. Even so, this isn’t what the DUP want to hear. With these figures, they would suffer catastrophic losses at the next Assembly election.
The Office of First and Deputy First Minister has always been a joint position. And yet, voters go to the polls every year to keep the other out. For the DUP, the First Minister post is the top spot. It has huge symbolic meaning for them and political unionism. Michelle O’Neill has always referred to herself as joint head of government. Will the DUP adopt that language if they appoint a Deputy First Minister?
A Sinn Fein First Minister could have significant implications for ministerial appointments and political unionism. The prospect will rally republicans, unionists and loyalists to the polls next year. If it happens it will be a physiological blow to many unionists. To that I say, well, maybe unionism should try getting more votes?
The symbolism of a Sinn Fein First Minister goes further than just the Executive Office. It will be a huge moment for people in Northern Ireland from a catholic, nationalist background. I suspect that will be the case for people who don’t even support Sinn Fein. That needs to be recognised now.
Many worry that the DUP could bring down the institutions if they have to take the deputy First Minister post. That would be disastrous. It will confirm the belief of many that unionism can’t share, that it will only engage if it seen to be in a position of strength. For Northern Ireland to work, the institutions must survive no matter who becomes First Minister.
Everybody will be talking about the DUP and Sinn Fein for the next few weeks. For voters tired of the current monopoly, I suspect the Lucid Talk poll will only depress them further. We’re going to get new faces at the next election but not new politics.
The SDLP have a strong ministerial team, popular MLAs and an MP. The party will want to do better than 12%. For Alliance, they will study the increase to the UUP’s vote and the corresponding drop in their own support.
Alliance can’t take the Deputy First Minister post, even if they’re on par with the DUP. The Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 states that, “The nominating officer of the largest political party of the second largest political designation shall nominate a member of the Assembly to be the deputy First Minister.” The “others” don’t have the numbers.
The UUP will take comfort from the poll. It’s a good start for Doug Beattie. It’s still too early to tell if their fortunes are about to change. Unionism is now split three ways. There will be a huge push for “unionist unity” at the next election to stop a Sinn Fein First Minister. The UUP could lose votes to the centre ground if it’s seen to be a part of that. It could lose votes if it doesn’t help the other unionist parties. Beattie has a huge task ahead of him.
The significance of a Sinn Fein First Minister can’t be overstated. But for anybody hoping for something different, these latest figures show no sign of an incoming electoral shock.
Northern Ireland has had a DUP-Sinn Fein Executive for over ten years now. The NHS is in dire straits, the housing crisis is only getting worse, and we have thousands of children and families living in poverty. Over the past year we’ve had political scandals, controversies and terrible policy decisions. The ‘big two’ should be held accountable for this. The Lucid Talk poll shows that voters aren’t ready to punish them yet.
Sarah is a writer and lawyer from Belfast.