Hamill’s Beat - The BBC’s pollsters got it completely wrong

Democratic decisions rest in the secrecy of the ballot box.
Democratic decisions rest in the secrecy of the ballot box.

“Derry or Londonderry – I don’t care what anyone else calls it – I’m going to call it what I always called it,” announced a former colleague who happens to be a Derry man. “And, tell me, what’s that?” asked a senior politician. “It depends entirely on who I’m talking to,” says he.

Most of us try to avoid divisive issues, at least in ordinary, polite conversation. Readers of this column know I tend to nail my colours to the mast but even I’ll try to steer clear of needless contention.

Most of us, having grown up here, are well tuned in to the sensitive issues. In fact, we’re skilled at skating around them.

That’s why a recent opinion poll for the BBC threw up such weird results.

The research was carried out in early January for the Spotlight programme and it was broadcast at the beginning of February. The next morning I was invited on local radio to comment on it from the perspective of a Protestant who supports the re-unification of Ireland.

I said the poll’s findings were clearly unreliable – particularly the absurd notion that 23% of Sinn Féin voters and 56% of SDLP voters would vote to maintain the union with Britain if there were to be a border poll. No, insisted the BBC, the results were accurate and certainly well within the accepted margin of error.

Their poll, they said, largely confirmed the findings from last year’s census.

When asked about their national identity roughly as many people said they were “Northern Irish” as said they were “Irish”. Peter Robinson even claimed that the majority of Catholics now “want to stay in the UK”. “Northern Irish” was obviously the safe bet – the least contentious answer.

This tendency would have been even more exaggerated than normal because the hugely unpopular flag protests were at their peak when the research was being done.

Most people like to sound more moderate, sophisticated and rounded than the average rioter or flag protestor.

So, where were all the new “Northern Irish” in the Mid Ulster by-election?

Where were all the Catholics happy to stay in the United Kingdom? Did they vote for the quiet man, the agreed unionist candidate Nigel Lutton?

Of course not. They never existed in the first place. Either that or they mysteriously melted away in the secrecy of the ballot box.

If they had existed then the ultra moderate Alliance candidate, retired headmaster Eric Bullick wouldn’t have lost his deposit.

As it turned out, Sinn Féin’s Francie Molloy comfortably held the seat and Nigel Lutton got pretty much the pro-union vote he was expected to get. It was a case of no change there then!

So much for the pollsters’ absurd notion that a whole new group of non-sectarian, civic unionists have emerged. At least modesty doesn’t prevent me from saying, I told you so.

Meanwhile, it’s a very different world in England where by-elections do sometimes surprise us. At Eastleigh what the Financial Times called, “an almost embarrassingly right-wing candidate” for the Tories was beaten into third place by the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

Can you imagine any candidate here being described by the press as, “embarrassingly right-wing”? Candidates here could be to the right of Attilla the Hun and nobody would bother to feel in the least embarrassed.

Come to think of it, we don’t do party leaders like UKIP’s Nigel Farage either. (Thankfully, do I hear you say?)

Incidentally, back in 2006 the News of the World carried an exposé about Mr Farage’s alleged seven-times-a-night romp with a Latvian named Liga whom he met in a pub in Biggin Hill in Kent.

Yes, we don’t do politicians like Mr Farage with his French sounding name and his German wife. As far as we know, our politicians are all comparatively grey and boring but sound on the “constitutional” issue, of course.