Queen’s University Belfast: Protocol continues to divide opinion in Northern Ireland

The latest in a series of polls conducted for a research project at Queen’s University Belfast shows opinion on the Protocol among voters in Northern Ireland continues to be deeply divided, with only a small portion of respondents having ‘no opinion’ on the topic.

Almost two-thirds of respondents (64%) indicate that they see a failure of the UK and EU to reach a solution to the outstanding issues regarding the Protocol as putting peace and stability at risk.

The greatest levels of concern relating to the Protocol’s impact are for political stability; its economic impact is viewed by more respondents to be positive than negative.

Whilst opinions continue to be divided, the latest poll shows that 50% of respondents agreed, compared to 41% who disagreed.

Part of a three-year ESRC-funded research project on the Protocol on Ireland/ Northern Ireland, this is the fourth in a series of surveys to ‘temperature test’ voter attitudes on a range of issues relating to Brexit, the Protocol, and their implications for Northern Ireland.

The poll was undertaken 4-7 February 2022, at the end of a significant week for politics in Northern Ireland centring upon the Protocol. It uses the LucidTalk Northern Ireland Online Opinion Panel and the results are from a weighted sample of 1516 respondents that is representative of the Northern Ireland voting population, including by age, area of residence and community.

While 7 out of 10 respondents believe that Northern Ireland does need specific arrangements to manage the effects of Brexit, opinions are divided on the Protocol itself. There is a narrow majority (51%) who see the Protocol as the appropriate means for managing the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland with half (50%) seeing it as overall ‘a good thing for Northern Ireland’, with 40% disagreeing. 6 out of 10 respondents disagree that Brexit is overall ‘a good thing’ for the UK.

Comparison between this poll and the ones conducted in March, June and October 2021 shows that there has been a notable shift since summer 2021 towards greater acceptance of the Protocol. This is particularly evident in opinion on the economic effects of the Protocol. 48% see the Protocol as having a positive economic impact on Northern Ireland (whilst 43% see its economic impact as negative). And 63% 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’, whilst 26% disagree.

When asked about a set of issues identified by the UK Government as being problems with the Protocol, a clear majority (75%) of respondents continue to be concerned to maintain the existing availability of medicines into Northern Ireland, with the next greatest concern (66%) being the lack of involvement of Northern Ireland’s elected representatives and NI civil society in the governance of the Protocol. Of least concern were the change in suppliers from GB to local or EU sources (47% unconcerned by this) and the role of the European Court of Justice in disputes over the Protocol (46% unconcerned).

The poll shows the significance of the Protocol for the upcoming Assembly election. 4 out of 5 respondents say they will vote for candidates who share their view on the Protocol. 43% say they will vote for candidates in favour of the full application of the Protocol; 37% say they will vote for candidates opposed. With respect to the democratic consent vote in 2024, 50% favour MLAs voting for the full application of the Protocol; 42% want MLAs to vote against.

Nevertheless, the Protocol is not the issue that currently causes most concern to most voters. More respondents (44%) ranked the Protocol among the three issues of least concern to them whilst one third (32%) ranked the Protocol among the three issues of most concern to them.

There remain high levels of distrust of those involved in managing the Protocol in Northern Ireland; most particularly so for the UK government (84% distrust and 4% trust the UK government). Levels of distrust in political parties to manage the interests of Northern Ireland with respect to the Protocol are generally higher than levels of trust in them to do so. The only actor trusted by the majority (59%) in this area continue to be NI business representatives.

Principal Investigator of the project, Professor David Phinnemore, Professor of European Politics at Queen’s University Belfast, said: “This survey is an important live and evolving indication of the views and concerns of people in Northern Ireland in relation to the effects of the Protocol.

Whilst opinion in Northern Ireland appears to be becoming more accepting of the Protocol and a growing proportion view its effects as positive, it is clear that there remain high levels of concern relating to the Protocol and its negative impacts, especially relating to political stability.

This is particularly significant given that, thanks to the grace periods, the Protocol has not yet been fully implemented. Looking ahead, when it comes to any ‘Protocol solutions’, the building of trust and confidence across communities in Northern Ireland remains key for the UK, the EU and local politicians. Part of this will be addressing the issues that matter most to people here, such as medicines supply and NI having an effective ‘voice’ in the governance of the Protocol.”

Co-investigator on the project, Professor Katy Hayward, Professor of Political Sociology at Queen’s and Senior Fellow of the UK in a Changing Europe, noted: “This poll confirms what we know anecdotally, namely that there are strong opinions and concerns about the Protocol. But it also reveals an urgent need for greater information, knowledge and trust-building. Although 70% self-report having good understanding of the Protocol, the poll shows a majority bemoan a lack of reliable information on the subject (including in print or broadcast media) and they don’t trust political actors or institutions in handling Northern Ireland’s interests in this area. And, when tested, levels of knowledge of the Protocol are worryingly low.

This underscores the urgent need for more accurate and honest presentations of what the Protocol does and does not cover, especially in the lead-up to an election in which it is likely to feature prominently and opinions about it will potentially become more strongly-held and more polarised.”

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