A majority of people in Northern Ireland now view the Brexit protocol governing Irish Sea trade as a positive for the region, according to a poll.
The latest survey of public opinion conducted for Queen’s University, Belfast found that 52% of respondents consider the Northern Ireland Protocol to be a ‘good thing’ on balance.
That figure has increased from 43% who responded to the same question in June.
The poll is the latest commissioned by Queen’s to monitor attitudes in Northern Ireland towards Brexit and, particularly, the trade arrangements that have created economic barriers between the region and Great Britain.
The online survey conducted by LucidTalk at the start of October was the third such poll undertaken since the protocol came into effect at the start of the year.
While the results show that the contentious mechanism continues to sharply divide opinion in the region, it also indicates a growing acceptance of the arrangements.
It found that 53% of the 2,682 voters sampled now agree or strongly agree that the protocol is an appropriate means for managing the effects of Brexit on Northern Ireland. In June’s survey, this figure was 46%.
The protocol was agreed by the UK and EU as a way to ensure the Irish land border remained free flowing post-Brexit. It achieves that by moving regulatory and customs checks to the sea border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
London and Brussels are currently locked in negotiations to try to redraw aspects of the protocol and cut some of the red tape it has created on Irish Sea trade.
Many loyalists and unionists are vehemently opposed to the protocol, claiming it has weakened Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the UK.
Amid a threat from the DUP to pull down powersharing at Stormont if major changes are not secured, the UK Government had threatened to unilaterally suspend part of the protocol – by triggering the Article 16 mechanism – if talks with the EU end in failure.
Asked if the UK would be justified in triggering Article 16 now, 53% of respondents said no and 39% said yes.
The protocol also offers traders in Northern Ireland unrestricted access to sell with the UK internal market and the EU single market.
In response to the question as to whether the protocol provides Northern Ireland with a unique set of circumstances that could benefit the region, 62% said yes – an increase on the 57% who agreed in June’s poll and the 50% in March’s survey.
Respondents were also asked to rank their specific concerns about the protocol.
This exercise saw supply of medicines from GB and the additional customs paperwork on Irish Sea trade as the main issues of concern.
While the UK Government has insisted that removing the oversight role of the European Court of Justice in the protocol is a red line demand in the negotiations with the EU, the poll of Northern Ireland voters indicated the ECJ issue was not a priority concern.
A clear majority of voters continue to believe the protocol has had a negative political impact in the region.
Of those sampled, 59% saw the protocol impacting negatively on political stability in Northern Ireland – this percentage decreased from 68% in June’s poll.
Majorities – 62% and 64% – believe the protocol has had a negative impact on UK/Irish relations and EU/UK relations respectively. In the June poll, those numbers were 67% and 70%.
In terms of trust, 87% of respondents do not trust the UK Government to manage the interests of Northern Ireland in respect of the protocol, compared to 86% in June.
On Brexit itself, the poll also indicated a slight increase in the proportion of respondents – 60% compared to 57% in June – who disagree or disagree strongly that Brexit is on balance ‘a good thing for the UK’.
The polls are part of a three-year Queen’s project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
The 2,682 participants were a weighted sample of voters who take an interest in current affairs and politics, and who are likely to exercise their right to vote.
Principal investigator with the Queen’s project, Professor David Phinnemore, said: “Majority opinion in Northern Ireland appears to be becoming more accepting and indeed more supportive of the protocol, although many voters remain concerned about the impact Brexit and the protocol are having on Northern Ireland.
“Immediate priority concerns relate to the future availability of medicines and increased paperwork for and restrictions on bringing goods into Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
“The UK Government sees removal of the Court of Justice from the protocol as an overriding priority; the evidence from this poll is that this is not a priority concern of voters in Northern Ireland.
“What matters more are practical issues and addressing the political instability resulting from Brexit and responses to the protocol.”
Co-investigator Professor Katy Hayward added: “Given that the UK and EU are currently in talks to make adjustments to the protocol, this survey is an important indication of the views and concerns of the people in Northern Ireland.
“The UK and the EU have a crucial opportunity now to restore trust and confidence across communities in NI, as well as to address the issues that have arisen since the end of the transition period that matter most to people here.”