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Thursday, 20 September, 2001, 10:19 GMT 11:19 UK
Government preparing for poll 'flak'
BBC Northern Ireland political correspondent Mark Simpson analyses some of the findings of the latest opinion poll for the Hearts and Minds programme.

Q: If no agreement is reached among the parties by 23 September, what should the Secretary of State do?
All groups

The level of support for a fresh assembly election will come as an unpleasant surprise for Secretary of State John Reid.

Up to now, he has had no intention of calling one, preferring instead one of the other options - a one-day suspension or an unlimited suspension.

The findings of the poll will give him food for thought, but the results are unlikely to change his mind.

The poll suggested that the favoured option among unionists was an indefinite suspension, while the most popular choice among nationalists was an election.

It seems that whatever the secretary of state does, the flak will start flying.

Perhaps the surprising aspect of the poll was that so many people - 31% - were prepared to support another one-day suspension.

Some parties have argued that such measures undermine the credibility of devolution and make it look farcical.

But this survey suggests that there would not be the level of public outrage that some have anticipated.

Nonetheless, the poll indicates that if Dr Reid really wants to do what best captures the mood of the public, then he should announce an election and give the people their say.

Q: If the Referendum [on the Good Friday Agreement] was held again today, how would you vote



As suggested by previous polls, unionist support for the Good Friday Agreement has slipped.

And a clear majority of unionists are against the Agreement, according to the latest findings.

However, there does not seem to have been much of a change in unionist opinion within the past year.

The level of opposition to the deal among unionists - 58% - is almost identical to the figure recorded in a similar survey in May 2000.

Q: Under which of the following circumstances would you support David Trimble going back into government as First Minister?
All groups

David Trimble would be committing political suicide if he agreed to return as first minister without a new move by the IRA on decommissioning - that's the message coming from this opinion poll, and it does not come as any great surprise.

But a start to decommissioning would be enough for most Ulster Unionists - and most unionists in general - to support Mr Trimble's return to office.

Representing views:

Sinn Fein and the DUP have not done as well in this poll as they did in the recent Westminster and local government elections.

But both parties tend to under-perform in opinion polls and the figures recorded in this latest survey (DUP 17% and Sinn Fein 17% ) are their highest ever.

Q: Do you think that the party that best represents your views should support nominations to the new Policing Board?

This part of the poll is good news for the government - a majority of nationalists and unionists both said that they backed the new Police Board.

The party breakdown of the figures makes for interesting reading. Most UUP supporters (80%) and most SDLP supporters (82%) were in favour of the party taking its places on the board.

DUP supporters were split down the middle with a slight majority against.

In spite of Sinn Fein's hard line against the board, 35% of Sinn Fein supporters backed the idea of joining up.

Union safest:

The "big two" within unionism are consolidating their position.

In comparison with previous polls, David Trimble and Ian Paisley are gaining ground ahead of the leaders of the smaller unionist parties.

In a poll three years ago, almost a quarter of those surveyed said the Union was safest in the hands of either the PUP's David Ervine or the UK Unionist leader Bob McCartney.

Their personal rating has now slipped while Mr Trimble and Mr Paisley have received further backing.

The fact that Mr Trimble tops the poll, comfortably ahead of Mr Paisley, will make for happy reading at UUP headquarters.

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