Support for the Democratic Unionist Party, primary backers of an unpopular Brexit in Northern Ireland, keeps falling.
A poll published this weekend put the DUP — for two decades the top party in Northern Ireland — in fourth place behind two other unionist parties. Its appeal hasn’t plumbed these depths since the mid-1970s when Northern Ireland was in a state of civil war and the DUP was an outside extremist voice demanding the destruction of the Irish Republican Army.
This year’s slump mirrors the party’s unprecedented internal turmoil over how Brexit has turned out for Northern Ireland. The post-Brexit trade protocol agreed by the British government and European Commission has kept Northern Ireland within the EU single market for goods — a peculiar outcome that, to the dismay of many unionists, makes it easier for local businesses to trade with the Republic of Ireland than with the rest of the U.K.
In February, when Arlene Foster was still leader of both the DUP and Northern Ireland’s cross-community government, 19 percent of voters said they backed her party, already uncomfortably below the DUP’s arch-rivals in the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin party.
By May, as protocol critic Edwin Poots ousted Foster as leader, DUP support fell to 16 percent.
This weekend’s polling offers the first measure of popular support since Jeffrey Donaldson ousted the gaffe-prone Poots. It shows DUP support down to 13 percent as voters keep defecting to the liberal left and fundamentalist right.
That dynamic shows how deeply divided the predominantly Protestant unionist community has become at a time when Sinn Féin, far ahead on 25 percent support, appears poised to take the helm of the region’s power-sharing government for the first time. The next Northern Ireland Assembly election is scheduled for May 2022.
The poll, conducted by LucidTalk for the Belfast Telegraph with an error margin of 2.3 percentage points, puts the moderate Ulster Unionist Party ahead of the DUP for the first time since 2003 with 16 percent support.
While the Ulster Unionists likewise oppose the protocol, their new leader, ex-British soldier Doug Beattie, has won plaudits from across the divide for offering a message that’s more open to compromise.
At the far extreme, Traditional Unionist Voice has seen its support surge this year from virtually nothing to 14 percent. Its leader and the party’s only Stormont Assembly lawmaker, ex-DUP European Parliament member Jim Allister, vows to stop EU checks on British goods arriving at Northern Ireland’s ports and to end power-sharing with Sinn Féin.
While the British unionist and Irish nationalist sides of Northern Ireland’s divide rarely see eye to eye, the poll found they do share one opinion: The Tories are terrible.
When asked to rate local and U.K. leaders, those polled identified the worst as Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis. More than three-quarters rated them both “bad or awful.” Johnson’s approval rating was just 9 percent, with Lewis on 4 percent.