The political conditions for the Scottish referendum were simple compared to anything likely to apply in Ireland. With the dominance of the proportionality principle in the institutions, the weight of the GFA is against it and a new political chapter would have to be turned before it is conceivable. It would become a potential result of a good long time of stability not a way out of the present near- deadlock. So sorry to disappoint, but there won’t be a referendum anytime soon.
The law says the decision is up to the Secretary of State, in effect the British government in cooperation with the Irish government. S/he “shall lay before Parliament such proposals to give effect to that wish as may be agreed between Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom and the Government of Ireland.” – not, note, to forestall the chance of unity, which seems to have been Peter Robinson’s motive for flirting with it. It also locks the Republic into the decision. Even if Sinn Fein were to win a place in a future Irish government it’s hard to see how the Dail would vote for possible unity in anything like present circumstances.
The Act is silent on the criteria for assessing support. This presents the opportunity for the sort of game Sinn Fein were inevitably going to play in the wake of the Scotland vote whatever the verdict, with the DUP squaring up to them. It’s a silly game of double bluff. A wider Numbers Game may have begun at last in order to throw a political feint to distract the unwary from SF’s mulish obstructionism over the budget and the DUP’s over the Haas agenda. But they know it’s only an empty blame game.
Self-determination, the basic principle of our complicated little local democracy would have to apply. What would be the basic test of opinion in favour of a poll? A majority in favour in the Assembly? A majority of designated nationalists only? A majority of voters supporting nationalists who write a border poll into their 2015 and 2016 manifestos? What sort of majority – simple or weighted? (I guess simple because of the precedents). Would the Irish government and people have an effective veto (a) on a Northern poll (b) in the form of reluctance to hold their corresponding poll? There’s enough there to keep political onanists in agreeable fantasy for a decade or two at least.
However the two national governments and parliaments would be well advised to consider better criteria than the guesswork of a secretary of state. I speculate that they would not allow a border poll if there was a serious threat to stability, even if they thought there was a narrow majority in favour. In that event nationalists could argue that a 1912 style crisis would be back in force with the threat of unionist violence behind it. A unionist boycott would be a simpler destructive tactic. Such a situation would present a challenge to the whole community to consider stability before that point is reached. This time however a simple unionist veto could not apply. Joint sovereignty might be the temporary default Who knows- the ranks of “other” might swell to become a bigger factor.
More importantly, the rival main parties would do better to win cross community respect by governing better. Some measure of cross community support is the essential test of political progress of any kind. And who can argue that at the moment that the DUP are the only obstacle to progress? The key point to grasp is that a border poll would be a product of stability, not a threat to it.
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