Testing The Temperature 4 - II
Trust to manage the interests of Northern Ireland vis-à-vis the Protocol
The implementation of the Protocol involves a range of actors. As with all four previous polls, the only group that is trusted by a majority to manage the interests of Northern Ireland with respect to the Protocol are Northern Ireland’s business representatives (59%), and the level of trust has increased to its highest across the four polls to date (see Figure 5).
Trust in the UK government continues to be extremely low (4%) and as it was in October 2021. More than four fifths of respondents (84%) continue to distrust the UK government with a majority continuing to ‘distrust [it] a lot’ (51%), although this is lower than in the previous poll (57%).
By contrast, trust in and distrust of the European Commission/EU remains essentially unchanged from October at 45%, but this is a slight improvement on the June 2021 poll. The same is true with regard to the Irish government where the gap between levels of trust (42%) and distrust (46%) is unchanged from the October poll but up slightly from the June 2021 poll. It is notable that levels of trust in and distrust of both the Commission and the Irish government are broadly matched, with only a minority (c.10%) not holding an opinion on whether they can be trusted or not.
Trust in the NI Executive to manage the interests of Northern Ireland with respect to the Protocol remains strikingly low (16%) (with only the UK Government suffering lower levels of trust). The figure is only marginally better than in the October 2021 poll (13%) and matches the June poll (17%). A slight majority (52%) distrust the NI Executive (a figure essentially unchanged across our polls); this is broadly in line with levels of distrust of most other actors, with the exception of the UK Government (at 84%) and the DUP (at 72%).
As for the levels of trust in/distrust of the five political parties that form the Northern Ireland Executive, those mostly remain unchanged. For Alliance (45%) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) (43%), the figures are up on the October 2021 poll (39% and 40% respectively) and back to the level of the June 2021 poll. Distrust of these two parties remains steady at similar levels to trust. As in October 2021, a third of respondents trust Sinn Féin (34%) and just over a quarter trust the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) (28%) when it comes to the Protocol. But levels of distrust remain markedly higher for Sinn Féin (55%) than for the UUP (40%). As in the June and October 2021 polls, it is notable how many respondents – three out of ten – remain neutral towards the UUP. Distrust in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) (72%) continues to fall slightly on previous polls but remains very high. Trust in the DUP has improved most of all parties since the October and June polls, albeit only to 21% of voters.
Written comments on politics and political parties in Northern Ireland
Comments provided by respondents for this poll included some general and specific criticisms of politics in Northern Ireland. There was, however, significant criticism of the DUP, with 18% of optional written responses focusing on the party’s handling of Brexit and/or on its recent decision to withdraw from the Executive in protest against the Protocol:
"The Protocol is a necessary outworking of the hard Brexit that the DUP and others advocated for. I’m heartily sick of listening to their whining about it.”
“The DUP has now enacted its threat to bring down the Assembly over the Protocol. The Protocol is an integral part of Brexit which the DUP backed. It’s sad that they put self-interest over what’s best for the community.”
No comments specifically welcomed the First Minister’s resignation. However, there were a few which supported the suspension of the Assembly in protest at the Protocol. For example:
“Unionists MUST NOT GO BACK INTO Stormont until the Northern Ireland Protocol is Scrapped for GOOD. If the Northern Ireland Protocol Stays then there will be no Stormont and the GFA is dead.”
Democratic consent and MLAs
The future of core provisions of the Protocol – those relating primarily to the movement of goods (i.e. Articles 5-10) – is subject to the democratic consent of members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLAs) in a vote that is to be held up to every four years. MLAs will first vote in November/December 2024.
Most respondents (92%) have a view on how they wish their MLAs to vote: 50% in favour of the continued application of Articles 5-10 and 42% against (see Figure 6). These mirror the figures from October 2021 and so confirm the marked gap in views that has emerged since the June 2021 poll when voters were split almost evenly (46% in favour and 45% against). In the March 2021 poll, more respondents supported a vote in favour (47%) of the continued application of Articles 5-10 than a vote against (42%).
Most respondents say they will vote in the next NI Assembly election (due to occur on or before 5 May 2022) for candidates who share their view. In results in line with the October 2021 poll, 43% say they will only vote for candidates in favour of the continued application of Articles 5-10 of the Protocol; 37% say they will only vote for candidates opposed to its continued application. The gap has narrowed from ten percentage points in October 2021 to six, although it remains larger than the one and two percentage points in the March and June 2021 polls.
Of those who want their MLAs to oppose the Protocol, more than two thirds continue to want it removed in its entirety (although this is not possible under the terms of the democratic consent vote). One fifth of voters maintain that a candidate’s position on the Protocol will not determine whether they vote for them or not.
Understanding of the Protocol
In all three polls to date, at least 70% of respondents have indicated that they have a ‘good understanding’ of the Protocol. In this latest poll, the proportion (77%) was the highest yet. Such high self-reported levels of understanding are not, however, borne out in the responses to a series of ‘true or false’ statements included in one part of this poll, which tested knowledge of six important elements of the Protocol. Figure 7 shows the statements posed, and the percentage of respondents that described them as true and false. The circled percentages are those giving the correct answer. The red percentages are those in which most responses were incorrect.
Of the six statements, the correct response was provided by a majority of respondents in only three cases. And in none of these cases was the majority overwhelming. The two statements where majorities responded correctly were: the Protocol commits the UK to ensuring that the rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity set out in the 1998 Agreement are not diminished – true (57%); and Northern Ireland under the Protocol officially remains part of the UK customs territory and the UK internal market – true (55%).
On whether Article 16 of the Protocol allows the UK or the EU to suspend the whole Protocol indefinitely, 51% of respondents correctly answered ‘false’. Any safeguard measures adopted under Article 16 are to be ‘restricted with regard to their scope and duration to what is strictly necessary in order to remedy the situation’. More than a third of respondents (36%) claimed the statement to be true, a reflection arguably of the quality of political debate in the UK about what triggering Article 16 can and cannot achieve.
Of the three statements to which a majority responded incorrectly, the most emphatic response was the claim by 79% of respondents that the Protocol maintains the free movement of goods, services, capital and people on the island of Ireland to avoid a hard Irish land border. The statement is false. The Protocol does provide for the free movement of goods on the island of Ireland, but not the other three ‘freedoms’. The partial exception relates to provisions relating to a single electricity market on the island of Ireland. Only 16% of respondents identified the statement as being false.
Only 26% of respondents noted correctly that Northern Ireland has been represented as part of the UK delegation at formal meetings of the joint UK-EU bodies managing the implementation of the Protocol. 52% of respondents claimed the statement to be false when in fact UK delegations to meetings of the Joint Committee, the Specialised Committee and the Joint Consultative Working Group have included ministers or officials from Northern Ireland in line with commitments contained in the New Decade, New Approach deal. The fact that this statement was one in which 1 in 5 people answered ‘Don’t Know’ shows quite how significant the lack of public awareness is when it comes to the governance of the Protocol. We would suggest that the blame for this does not lie with members of the public themselves.
Responses were less clear on whether, together, the Common Travel Area (CTA) and the Protocol guarantee unfettered access for goods and people from Ireland into the UK. The statement is false and was identified as such by 40% of respondents; 47% claimed it was true. Neither the CTA nor the Protocol contains such guarantees. The Protocol only covers goods from Northern Ireland, not Ireland as a whole; and the CTA only covers Irish and UK citizens, so not non-Irish EU citizens, for example.
Such a pattern of responses indicates an outstanding need for greater awareness and more accurate and honest presentations of what the Protocol does and does not cover.
Public opinion on what might come next
The final section of the poll involved a re-run of some previous questions, some new options regarding governance of the Protocol, and some questions on the significance of recent political developments for the Protocol.
As noted above, more than three-fifths of respondents (63%) continue to agree that the Protocol provides Northern Ireland with ‘a unique set of post-Brexit economic opportunities compared to the rest of the UK which if exploited could benefit Northern Ireland’. The figure confirms the upward trend through the previous polls in March (50%), June (57%) and October 2021 (62%).
On whether the UK government would be justified in triggering Article 16 now – a question first asked in the October 2021 poll – a majority of respondents (53%) still disagree. As in the October poll, 39% are of the view that the UK government would be justified in triggering Article 16.
In answer to a related question, 56% of respondents agreed that the UK government must prioritise in all circumstances upholding its international treaty obligations including under the Protocol; 34% disagreed.
When it comes to matters of governance of the Protocol and ‘voice’ from Northern Ireland, there are clear and consistent patterns. 78% of respondents (up from 73% in October) agree that formalised structures for the UK-EU bodies overseeing the Protocol to hear directly from business and civil society organisations in Northern Ireland should be put in place. Only 11% disagree.
A majority of respondents (64%) also agrees that the recently established UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly should have a sub-committee dedicated to Northern Ireland and that this sub-committee should include MLAs. 15% disagree, with a further 21% being neutral or having no opinion.
We were able to include two questions that addressed the political developments that occurred immediately prior to the poll going live. Only 37% of respondents agree that Minister Poots is right to insist that officials cease border checks on agri-food products entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain; 59% disagree. And just a quarter (26%) of respondents think that the resignation of Paul Givan as First Minister will strengthen the hand of the UK government in its talks with the EU over the Protocol; 60% disagree.
A final question concerned whether the print and broadcast media in Northern Ireland can ‘generally be relied on to provide balanced coverage of political and economic developments concerning the Protocol’. Only 21% of respondents agree that they can provide such coverage; three times as many (63%) disagree.
This brings us to the conclusion that, although there are strong opinions and concerns about the Protocol, perhaps a more significant finding from the four polls conducted so far is the perceived lack of reliable information on the subject, the actual lack of awareness and/or knowledge that the public have (through no fault of their own), and the widespread lack of trust they have generally in the actors responsible for managing Northern Ireland’s interests with respect to the Protocol.
The full report can be downloaded here: Testing the Temperature 4
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