Fears of Societal Split over the NI Protocol have been Overblown according to New Survey…

There is inter-community consensus for the NI Protocol mitigations proposed by the EU and UK government according to a new survey undertaken by the University of Liverpool.

Indeed, the survey completed in mid to late October 2021 and comprising over 1000 participants across all council areas, not only showed wide-ranging agreement for pragmatic solutions, it indicated that the Protocol is simply not a top priority for most people in Northern Ireland.

This will be sobering reading for those who have sought to either raise tensions, make political capital or exaggerate community discord over an issue that has dominated our political debates and news channels over the last year.

Professor Peter Shirlow Director of the Institute of Irish Studies, who led the study, commented,

It is evident that respondents seek proportionality in North-South and East-West trade relationships. There is no evidence here of mass rejection, even among unionists, of the mitigations/easements advanced by the EU. Similarly, there is no nationalist/republican rejection of key UK government proposals. This is not what is assumed within media and political commentary.’

Professor Shirlow goes on to describe the deep-seated healing process that is currently taking place and highlight the risks of reading too much into simplified social media comment on the subject, he said,

‘The inter-community consensus located within this report is a point of renewal for ongoing mitigations, and confirmation that resolution will further develop that societal consensus and social cohesion. Complex issues cannot be reduced to sound bites, Tweets and headlines.’

Interestingly, the survey data also indicated that there is little evidence that would support invoking Article 16 for reasons of inter-community strife.

The UK government has continually threatened to suspend the Protocol unless the EU takes their demands seriously and they show more flexibility in the negotiations.

However, the results of this latest survey indicate that the UKgov can no longer use any perceived or widespread societal discord as one of the reasons to carry out this action unilaterally.

For example, the survey found that there was a high level of community agreement on practical solutions, with only 5.6% of those surveyed opposed to the EU’s proposals on pharmaceuticals. 80.7% of nationalists, 71.9% of unionists and 66.5% of neither supported the EU’s proposal to resolve this difficulty.

Furthermore, the actions of the business community have been highly commended, with 75% of those surveyed agreeing that business leaders had proposed positive ideas and solutions and helped to ease tensions.

This will be welcome news for the hard-working business representatives who have continually engaged in a positive way with all political parties and stakeholders – also touring the newsrooms and TV studios to explain the complexities and impact of the NI Protocol in a coherent and understandable way.

The Liverpool University survey also included an opportunity to investigate vote intentions on the run-up to the next NI Assembly elections and constitutional preferences.

Firstly, there was a strong consensus across the communities that the NI Assembly and Executive should remain in place until the proposed elections next May, 65% of those surveyed agreed, whilst only 9.6% disagreed.

In terms of priorities, nearly 60% of respondents said that Health, Covid Recovery and the Economy was their number one priority, with only just over 9% opting to choose the NI Protocol.

When asked what respondent’s 1st preference voting intentions were for the next Assembly election it was the Alliance Party who showed the greatest projected growth since the 2017 Assembly vote – with a predicted 8.2% increase over this period.

In the survey, Sinn Fein was predicted to be the largest party with 23.0% but were down 4.4% since the 2017 Assembly elections. The DUP defied some recent polls, with a 20.6% share of the vote and the Alliance Party was third on 17.3%. And the UUP and SDLP remained roughly on the same share of the vote that they achieved in 2017. The TUV on 5.6%, with a 3.0% increase from 2017, and the Greens on a 3.9% vote share.

Overall, this survey, undertaken by the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool, will be welcomed by those wanting consensus on the NI Protocol and across all communities in Northern Ireland.

The data certainly doesn’t indicate a widening divide, and in fact, shows a willingness of most people to support the initiatives by both the EU and UK government to reach an agreement and find pragmatic solutions to the problems created by the Protocol.

Also, those who have endeavoured to accentuate cross-community splits over the Protocol, for whatever reason or purpose, should reflect upon these findings.

The introduction of this new empirical data on our society’s attitude to the NI Protocol is a welcome and timely addition to the current debate.