So what’s the formula for a referendum, Owen?

Jamie Smyth the new (to me ) correspondent of the Financial Times has managed to win some space for an interview with Owen Paterson (£ sadly) who takes whatever wind there might have been out of  Martin McGuinness’s kite for a united Ireland referendum. Part of the draught perhaps from the Scottish referendum campaign Graham Walker has drawn attention to, as posted by Mick.

“For people in the north there is a real worry on the economic front. I think there is less interest in big constitutional issues and there is more interest in day-to-day economic issues,” he said.

Mr Paterson said he had no plans to call a referendum, saying the constitutional question was “settled, subject to the majority” view.

Reliance is placed on the Life and Times Survey on political attitudes. While I recognise an apparent inconsistency with  “real” voting  (and dwindling turnout too, mind) no one has explained to me what the survey’s statistical flaws are.

Last year, 73 per cent of respondents to an opinion poll in Northern Ireland said they wanted the region to remain a part of the UK. The Life and Times survey published in June 2011 found 52 per cent of Catholics living in Northern Ireland wanted the union to continue, compared with a third who favoured a united Ireland.

This is an academic question that should be worked on while the matter isn’t pressing. I doubt if Owen Paterson has given it a moment’s serious thought – or if he or others have, we should know about it. The 1998 act indeed kicked for touch and left the question of a referendum to the Secretary of State based on the likelihood of success. This is an impossible political mission for a British minister theoretically acting alone. You can hear the cries of bias from one side or the other depending on which major British party is in power. Leaving it to the Electoral Commission   would also constitute a very heavy burden for a fateful once and forever exercise in Irish self determination involving both governments and the people on both sides of the border that would make the Scottish referendum seem as simple as a random questionnaire. Maybe we should give some thought to the process?





Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London