The findings in Saturday’s Belfast Telegraph offer grim reading for Edwin Poots, who is rated as “bad or awful” by 62 percent of those surveyed. That’s by far the worst of any Northern Ireland party chief and 12 percentage points worse than the person he ousted as DUP leader, First Minister Arlene Foster.
The survey of more than 3,000 voters — conducted this week after Poots narrowly won a leadership contest against veteran MP Jeffrey Donaldson — shows the DUP’s support slumping to just 16 percent, a depth last plumbed in the mid-1990s.
That’s 3 points lower than at the start of 2021, when the Democratic Unionists already were hemorrhaging support because most unionists despise how Brexit has delivered a protocol that creates new regulatory barriers with the rest of the U.K.
It’s also far below the levels needed to maintain the DUP’s position as the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Belfast legislature faces elections next year followed by a pivotal vote to sustain or suspend the protocol.
Poots argues that to reject the protocol, unionist parties will need to win a majority of seats in the 90-member chamber, where the DUP is only a single seat ahead of its arch-enemies from the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin party.
But Saturday’s poll findings show just 41 percent support combined for the three unionist parties: the DUP, the moderate Ulster Unionists and the uncompromising Traditional Unionist Voice. The rest back parties that support the protocol because it avoids EU checks on Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic of Ireland.
Sinn Féin alone attracts 25 percent, putting Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill in a commanding position to claim the first minister’s post whenever the election comes.
For now, while Foster remains a lame-duck first minister, Poots and the DUP have yet to declare who will succeed her. Poots has ruled himself out of the job, insisting he must focus on widening the DUP’s appeal.
The poll, which had a 2.3 percent margin of error, suggests the opposite is happening.
It asked unionists who backed the DUP’s Assembly candidates in 2017 how they would vote next time. Nearly 45 percent said they would switch to the Traditional Unionists — who reject the protocol and continued cooperation with Sinn Féin — or to more compromising options in the Ulster Unionists and the cross-community Alliance Party.
They also much prefer the Ulster Unionists’ Doug Beattie and Traditional Unionists’ Jim Allister. Those party leaders attracted negative ratings from only 17 percent and 22 percent of unionists, respectively.
Even among DUP voters, Poots is viewed as the wrong choice. Only the party’s 36 lawmakers in Belfast and London were eligible to choose between him and Donaldson in a 19-17 result. The poll found, however, that two-thirds of the DUP’s grassroots wanted Donaldson.
Pollster LucidTalk managing director Bill White said the dismal ratings for Poots reflect “annoyance and worry in the DUP voter base, and in the wider unionist community, about the Northern Ireland protocol, sea border and Brexit in general.”