How do people in the South feel about northern parties and how do people in the North feel about the southern parties? This question would become highly important in the event of Irish unification, as voters at election time would likely be choosing among a wide range of parties on the island.
In The Irish Times/ARINS surveys, we asked the public, North and South, to indicate the extent to which they feel close to, or distant from, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, Alliance and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). In each case the big three in each jurisdiction command a supermajority of the first-preference vote: Sinn Féin, the DUP, and Alliance in the North; Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the South.
A remarkably large proportion – between 35-40 per cent – of the public in the North, and in both religious communities, simply say they “don’t know” when asked how they feel about Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, suggesting that these parties are something of an irrelevant mystery. To them, they might as well be Fianna Gael, or Fine Fáil .
Among northern Catholics, women are more likely to say they “don’t know” than men (consistent with the general finding that women are less politically engaged). Catholics with weak links to the South – regarding relations, friendships and cross-Border visits – are much more likely to say “don’t’ know” than those with strong cross-Border links. In relation to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil respectively, 55 and 56 per cent of Catholic women with weak connections to the South indicate that they “don’t’ know”.
Among Protestants, working-class men are the least likely to say “don’t know”. They indicate a strongly negative evaluation of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
The northern parties – DUP and Alliance – are only half as mysterious to southerners as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are to northerners. Just one-fifth of southerners say they “don’t know” how they feel about these parties.
By contrast, almost everyone, North and South, has a feeling about the all-island party among the big five, Sinn Féin.
[ Northerners are more connected to the South than southerners are to the North ]
Let us exclude the “don’t knows” and concentrate on those who indicated their feelings about the parties (Table 2). Three of the five most negative scores (ie high scores on the one-five scale from “very close to” to “very distant from”) are given by northern Protestants, in their evaluations of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Sinn Féin. The other two most negative scores are evaluations of the DUP, which are given by the southern public and northern Catholics.
Northern Catholics feel positively about Sinn Féin, as northern Protestants do about the DUP.
Very few people, either North or South, decline to indicate a view on “their” respective parties in their own jurisdiction. When we focus on distinct sets of party voters and examine how they evaluate all the parties, we find – unsurprisingly – that people feel closest to the party that they vote for. Such strong party-identification is greatest among Sinn Féin voters in the North (Table 3).
Excluding such self-evaluations, if these five parties – Alliance, DUP, Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – were competing in an all-island election in a united Ireland, would their current party supporters be attracted to any of the other parties? Who would gain new voters, and from whom? And who would lose voters, and to whom?
The DUP would be unlikely to either attract votes from, or lose votes to, the other four parties. At 4.4 or worse, it is the most negatively evaluated party, and that is by both the southern and other northern party voters. The DUP’s voters reciprocate the sentiment: they do not indicate that they are at all close to these other parties
Alliance voters give a negative score of four or higher to all of the other parties. So, they are unlikely to desert to any of them. Alliance, however, is at least somewhat positively evaluated (3.3) by one set of party voters, Sinn Féin voters in the North. Alliance voters do not return the favour to Sinn Féin (4.0), but they are closer to Sinn Féin than they are to the DUP (4.6).
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael look electorally interchangeable. Their voters like each other, and don’t really like anyone else. But no one else really likes either of them, so they would fish from the same shared pool of voters.
There is one important caveat. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and particularly Fine Gael, are significantly disliked more by southern Sinn Féin voters than they are by northern Sinn Féin voters. That suggests they may have some prospect of competing for northern Sinn Féin votes in future.
Overall, these results highlight the similarity of responses to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and the similar challenges they face. They encounter difficulty in even reaching the consciousness of many northern Catholics, especially women and those with weak cross-Border connections. In the context of an all-island polity these two old Civil War rivals may look increasingly like the same party.
The findings from The Irish Times/ARINS surveys highlight how well positioned Sinn Féin is for electoral competition on the island. It is the only big party that strongly registers on the radar across the whole island, and it is relatively positively evaluated in both jurisdictions.
Our focus on the “big five” parties is, of course, a simplification of a more complex picture. Smaller parties, both North and South, will not simply exit the political stage. The DUP will face competition from the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV).
Our data suggests that the DUP is better placed to attract TUV than UUP votes. Sixty per cent of TUV voters feel close to the DUP, but only half as many DUP voters reciprocate with warm feelings towards the TUV.
Our data also suggest that northern Sinn Féin voters are more positively disposed to the SDLP (52 per cent) than the reverse (36 per cent). And in the South, Sinn Féin voters have little positive evaluation of either the Greens or Labour.
Though the possibility is some time away, if Irish unification were to occur, on the current array of public opinion, an all-island election would see Sinn Féin as the plurality party in votes and seats but obliged to put together coalition partners if it wished to govern.
- Read all our pieces in the series to date here North and South - The Irish Times