The latest LucidTalk poll (which has been very accurate in its calling of Assembly and Westminster elections in the past few years) makes interesting reading, particularly now, with the parties trying to reach a deal.

The figures suggest that the DUP and Sinn Féin would win around 66 per cent of the vote (35 per cent and 31 per cent respectively), which probably means about 59/60 seats between them. Both the SDLP and UUP are polling below 10 per cent, meaning they’ll probably lose seats. But, as Bill White (MD of LucidTalk) notes, “The SDLP have structurally safer seats under the PR system used for Assembly elections. The UUP don’t have these type of safe seats because most of their MLAs got elected during the later counts at the last election. These poll figures mean they could possibly lose 3-4 seats from their current 10.”

That’s the sort of prediction which will be of interest to the DUP. They have 28 seats at the moment, so picking up even two seats from the UUP brings them to the 30 seats required to trigger a petition of concern on their own. In other words, they may calculate that they have nothing to fear from another Assembly election. Sinn Féin, on the other hand, would need a considerable swing to pick up the three extra seats they would require to bring them up to 30. More important, this poll suggests that they’re very unlikely to overtake the DUP in either votes or seats: all of which means that another election would not be an attractive option for them.

Figures matter to the big two. Yes, they may claim to take them with a pinch of salt (and all polls come with caveats and margins of error), yet they will have the percentages and predictions in their back of their minds all the time they’re talking to each other. For example, 66 per cent of DUP supporters—and almost 50 per cent of UUP/TUV/UKIP/PUP voters—are opposed to an Irish language act. When DUP voters were asked the question, ‘If the DUP judged that it suited DUP objectives to agree to a NI Irish Language Act, say as an overall agreement with SF, as a DUP voter would you agree with this?’, 50 per cent wouldn’t. That will make Arlene Foster think twice before moving beyond the olive branch (legislation for a wider language and culture act) she offered Sinn Féin last week. And with around 70 per cent of Sinn Féin voters opposed to setting up the executive in the absence of an Irish language act, Michelle O’Neill will also be treading very carefully.

What should worry them most, though—because it indicates a steadily increasing disenchantment with the institutions—is the statistic suggesting that a thin majority of just 53 per cent supports restoring the executive. 45 per cent of unionists favours that option, but 54 per cent would prefer either temporary or permanent direct rule. On the nationalist side, 55 per cent back a restored executive, with 41 per cent preferring joint authority. These figures suggest that—apart from the usual old us-and-them electoral tussle between the DUP and Sinn Féin—it could be hard for either of them to galvanise and maximise their vote if there was an early election for an assembly.

Another problem for the DUP is any shift in favour of same-sex marriage as part of Sinn Féin’s broader equality agenda. 56 per cent of unionists oppose any change to the current law. A number of DUP MLAs have indicated—privately, so far—that they would not support Foster approving a deal that would mean a petition of concern could not be used to prevent same-sex marriage legislation in a restored Assembly. So there seems to be little room for Foster to manoeuvre. O’Neill can’t move, either; LucidTalk’s poll indicates that 91 per cent of republicans/nationalists would vote to legalise same-sex marriage in a local referendum. I wonder if both parties would agree to put it to a referendum?

It’s also worth noting that 90 per cent of the respondents (90 per cent unionists/80 per cent nationalists) believe that MLA salaries and expenses should either be stopped immediately or significantly reduced if a deal isn’t done. That, too, will focus minds; and may even embolden the secretary of state to shake himself from what looks like terminal stupor and introduce the necessary legislation.

The poll confirms (which polls tend to do in most cases) what we suspected already: the DUP and Sinn Féin remain polarised on key issues—and not just the ones in this poll, either—and there is an ongoing and worrying decline in support for the present institutions. And it also confirms the enormous difficulty there will be in cobbling together a deal: which, given the gulf between the parties, can only ever be a cosmetic and wobbly deal, anyway.

I come back to a point I made in the Irish News on July 28: I think that politics here is heading towards a very bad place. The issues and agendas that divide the parties (and I include the UUP and SDLP in this) are now so wide they have become unbridgeable. The tipping point is now inevitable and inescapable.

This commentary first appeared in the Irish News on 16th September 2017