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David Phinnemore and Katy Hayward outline the findings of their latest poll on the Northern Ireland Protocol and what it means for how a UK-EU deal might be received in Northern Ireland.

Expectations are high that the UK and the EU will soon announce a deal on the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. Their hope is that after three years of political wrangling, contestation, legal proceedings and threats of unilateral disapplication, an  agreement on the Protocol will bring more stability to the UK-EU relationship and to Northern Ireland.

Our latest Post-Brexit Governance NI poll on the Protocol among voters in Northern Ireland – conducted on 3-6 February – provides few grounds for optimism that the contestation around the Protocol will quickly dissipate. After seven polls conducted over the last two years, it is clear that the Protocol remains a divisive topic in Northern Ireland and that people’s positions on it are firmly entrenched.

The overall picture is that a majority of our respondents see the Protocol as the appropriate means for managing the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland (53%) and as, on balance, ‘a good thing for Northern Ireland’ (52%); 38% and 41% of respondents respectively are of the opposite view. These figures have barely changed over the past year.

The same is true of how respondents want members of the NI Assembly to vote in late 2024 when they will be asked to give their ‘consent’ to the continued implementation of the Protocol. A slender majority (51%) want MLAs to vote in favour; two fifths (41%) want them to vote against. These figures have also remained remarkably consistent across the last five polls.

The majority of voters view the Protocol as politically significant, with four out of five saying that a candidate’s views on the Protocol (one way or another) will determine whether they vote for them in the next NI Assembly election.

At the same time, for most voters the Protocol is not currently the issue of most concern to them. Indeed, for 44% of respondents, the Protocol was the issue of least concern to them in a list of six policy areas (including healthcare, education, environment and transport).

That said, for one in five respondents (22%) the Protocol is their top-ranked concern. Those who prioritise the Protocol are overwhelmingly male (by a ratio of 5:2) and strongly unionist.

80% of those who describe themselves as strong unionists placed it in their top 3 concerns, with 57% putting it as number one. Those ranking the Protocol as their top concern are also more likely to be older; only 8% of 18-25 year olds rank the Protocol as their top concern.

When asked about the full operational scope of the Protocol, two fifths of respondents indicated they had no concerns (35%) or were of no opinion (7%). For those with concerns (58%), top of the list was the potential customs declarations on parcels moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, followed by restrictions on seeds and plants entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Possibly reflecting the media profile of the issue, the jurisdiction of the EU Court of Justice under the Protocol has risen as a matter of concern. As in previous polls, Northern Ireland aligning with EU standards for the production of goods is the concern of lowest level regarding the Protocol.

Whether such concerns will be assuaged by any UK-EU deal on the Protocol remains to be seen. This is crucial, of course, because a deal acceptable to the Democratic Unionist Party is seen as vital to unlocking the essential current block to power-sharing in Northern Ireland. The extent of that opposition to the Protocol is reflected in the significant minority of respondents (22%) who indicated that they would only vote in the next NI Assembly election for candidates who are in favour of ‘scrapping the Protocol’.

However, this latest poll shows once again that the clear majority of voters wish to see the return of the devolved government in Northern Ireland. 64% think the Northern Ireland Executive should be ‘fully functioning regardless of what happens on the Protocol’; a similar proportion (61%) reject the proposition that power-sharing in Northern Ireland should not be restored until the Protocol is ‘removed’.

Related to the matter of functioning institutions, the same proportion (61%) did not wish for an Assembly election to be postponed again, regardless of the status of UK-EU talks. A postponement of one year was announced by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland three days after our polling.

The sense of current limbo in Northern Ireland is compounded by the fact that most respondents think there are potential benefits to be had from the Protocol. Even though only 52% think the Protocol is currently ‘a good thing’, for Northern Ireland, close to two-thirds (62%) think that ‘if exploited’ the Protocol ‘could’ provide Northern Ireland with ‘a unique set of post-Brexit economic opportunities compared to the rest of the UK’.

The question of how such potential benefits could be realised comes back to the relationship between the UK and the EU and their future engagement with Northern Ireland. It is on these questions that we found most agreement among our respondents.

A clear majority (68%) think that, to reduce controls on goods crossing the Irish Sea into Northern Ireland, the UK should pursue closer relations with the EU under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. And, looking ahead, almost three quarters (73%) agree that that the UK and the EU should commit to regular consultation with Northern Ireland stakeholders and political representatives on how the Protocol is implemented.

Whatever the details of any agreement between the UK and the EU, it will be but one step on the long road of improving the post-Brexit relationship between the two of them. Without that, there is little hope of ameliorating the Protocol-related divisions in Northern Ireland.

By Katy Hayward, Professor of Political Sociology, and David Phinnemore, Professor of European Politics, Queen’s University Belfast. 


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