Sinn Féin remains on course to emerge from Northern Ireland’s next Assembly election as the largest party, according to a new poll.
On 25 per cent, the republican party is eight points ahead of its main unionist rivals the DUP, the LucidTalk poll commissioned by the Belfast Telegraph shows.
The gap has widened since the last LucidTalk poll in November, with Sinn Féin up one point and the DUP down one.
Of the other main Stormont parties, the poll puts Alliance and the Ulster Unionists in joint third place on 14 per cent (Alliance down one point on November and no change for the UUP), the TUV on 12 per cent (up one) and the SDLP on 11 per cent (down one). The NI Green Party is up one point to 3 per cent. People Before Profit is on 1 per cent support.
While Sinn Féin’s current deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill looks well-placed to become First Minister after May’s scheduled election, uncertainty remains over whether she would have a unionist partner to govern with in those circumstances.
The DUP and UUP both continue to refuse to confirm whether they would participate in a coalition with a Sinn Féin First Minister. A functioning Executive could not be formed without the participation of the largest unionist party.
The online poll, which is based on the views expressed by a weighted sample of 3,112 voters last weekend, also indicates strong support among unionist voters for the DUP pulling out of the powersharing structures if there is no progress in changing the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol.
The protocol has created post-Brexit checks on Irish Sea trade with Britain, in order to avoid a border on the island of Ireland.
The DUP has repeatedly threatened to collapse the institutions unless the so-called Irish Sea border is removed. The party has paused that threat to await the outcome of the latest round of negotiations between the EU and UK.
According to the poll, 63 per cent of unionist voters think the DUP should be prepared to pull the plug on Stormont over the issue, with 43 per cent believing the party should make the move immediately.
However, the poll indicates significant divergence of opinion between the supporters of the different unionist parties.
Some 98 per cent of TUV voters want the DUP to withdraw its ministers from Stormont over the protocol, 81 per cent of DUP supporters favour that course of action while only 28 per cent of UUP voters are in favour of a Stormont collapse over the protocol.
The poll makes bad reading for DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson in terms of voter opinion on his personal performance.
Some 70 per cent of voters polled rated his performance over the last five months as bad or awful, with only 15 per cent thinking he has done well. The other 15 per cent did not express a view.
For Sinn Féin’s Stormont leader Ms O’Neill, 49 per cent of voters rated her performance as bad or awful, with 29 per cent scoring her as good or great.
The UUP’s Doug Beattie was the only leader of the main parties to emerge with a positive personal approval rating, with 43 per cent rating him as good or great compared to 31 per cent bad or awful.
Voters were almost evenly split on Alliance’s Naomi Long, with 41 per cent disapproving and 38 per cent approving.
It was similar for SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, with 40 per cent scoring him as bad or awful and 36 per cent rating him as good or great.
For TUV leader Jim Allister, 59 per cent viewed his personal performance as bad or awful and 28 per cent thought he was doing a good or great job.
As expected, the approval ratings for unionist and nationalist leaders varied significantly when the results are broken down into an analysis of the views of unionist voters and nationalist voters.
The poll was conducted amid the recent controversy over the prospect of the UK government introducing a limited form of dual mandates to allow Northern Ireland politicians to serve as both MPs and MLAs.
The move, which critics portrayed as an attempt to ease Mr Donaldson’s planned return to the Assembly, was dramatically ditched by the government during the week in the face of opposition from all the main Stormont parties, with the exception of the DUP.
The LucidTalk poll indicates the concept of double jobbing is not popular with the public, with 76 per cent of voters against it.
The DUP was the only party whose supporters backed the proposal, with 47 per cent in support and 41 per cent opposed.
In terms of overall views on the performance of Stormont since devolution returned in 2020, only 13 per cent of voters think local MLAs are doing a good job, with 57 per cent of voters rating its performance as bad or awful.
Unionist voters are particularly negative about Stormont, with 67 per cent critical of its performance. This compares to 41 per cent of nationalist voters and 48 per cent of Alliance/Green Party backers.
Turning to the UK government, 88 per cent of voters in Northern Ireland believe prime minister Boris Johnston is doing a bad/awful job while 72 per cent think the same of Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis.