Mistrust and fear for the future

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A new Northern Ireland opinion poll has provided telling insights into how difficult the task of finding agreement among the political parties is likely to be in the wake of last week's election.

The poll confirms the picture of a starkly divided political scene, characterised by mistrust, insecurity and uncertainty about the future. It suggests less than a third of voters believe the coming talks will result in agreement.

The bleak portrait emerges from a poll of voters carried out last week by Ulster Marketing Surveys, who put questions designed by Dr Geoffrey Evans and Professor Brendan O'Leary to more than 1,000 people.

The findings show that the British Government is held in low regard. Only one nationalist in 20, and less than one in five Unionists, said they trusted the Government. By contrast, three-quarters of nationalists and 43 per cent of Unionists indicated they did not trust the Government.

More nationalists were prepared to put their trust in the Irish government, while three-quarters of Unionists do not trust Dublin.

In another finding which augurs badly for the prospect of success in talks, the poll showed a lack of trust in the leadership of David Trimble's Ulster party, even among those who voted for it. While three-quarters of Sinn Fein voters strongly trusted the party leader, Gerry Adams, only 37 per cent of Ulster Unionist voters expressed strong trust in their leaders. Of those voting for the Ulster Unionists, six out of 10 said their second choice would be the Rev Ian Paisley's more hardline Democratic Unionists.

Asked whether voters would accept a settlement agreed to by their preferred leaders, even if it included elements they strongly disliked, more than two-thirds of those voting for Sinn Fein and John Hume's SDLP said they would. Among Ulster Unionist supporters, this was reduced to half.

On more wide-ranging questions concerning the future of Northern Ireland, marked differences showed up. Sixty per cent of Protestants believed Northern Ireland would still be part of the United Kingdom in 20 years time, while more than half of Catholics believed it would be part of an Irish Republic or run jointly by London and Dublin.

In terms of what they hoped to see happening in the future, Catholic opinion fragmented. Thirty-one per cent hoped it would be part of a united Ireland, 34 per cent hoped it would be under joint London-Dublin rule and 15 per cent thought it should remain within the UK.

Protestant opinion was more unified, with four-fifths wishing to stay in the UK. Interestingly, while 60 per cent of Sinn Fein voters wanted a united Ireland, a quarter would prefer joint London-Dublin rule.

On the Protestant side, however, the poll revealed deep opposition to Dublin's involvement in Northern Ireland.

Questioned on their attitude towards a new north-south body 85 per cent of nationalists were in favour but 70 per cent of committed Unionists were against.

Only a quarter of Protestants and 40 per cent of Catholics believed that an agreement would be reached by the parties who attended the talks.

David McKittrick

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