So Enda has taken the lead from Micheal who took his cue from Martin and inserted musing about a future border poll into his speech at Glenties. For such a fateful topic the whole sequence has been deplorably improvised. The qualifications about lack of present evidence won’t stop the hare running now. A border poll can only be damaging in any volatile situation and a monstrous irrelevance connected with Brexit, apart from the unpredictable fallout if Scotland votes for independence.
Does anybody seriously think that a 56 % majority in favour of Remain on a 63% turnout translates into majority support for a united Ireland? That Northern Ireland outside the EU will produce “a seismic shift?” “Europe” just isn’t that important in the North, unless it’s exploited as a new tune on the nationalist drum.
It is all too easy to put this run of comment down to the shocks of Brexit acting on the febrile Dail atmosphere and the possibility of early elections on both sides of the Irish Sea. Only a fortnight ago, Charlie Flanagan said: The fact that 56 per cent of those who voted in Northern Ireland on Thursday chose to remain in the EU does not mean that a majority of its electorate would similarly vote for a united Ireland,..’’ They are two very distinct questions.’ Tell that to your boss Charlie. Deaglán de Bréadún gave a flavour of the current political atmosphere in Dublin in a recent Irish News piece.
Dublin clearly needs to be London’s strongest ally in securing the best voluntary redundancy terms, provided of course those conditions do not affect Irish interests in a seriously negative way. But the conduct of the political class in the south these days does not inspire confidence in its ability to steer the ship of state through the choppy waters ahead.
Enda’s East German comparison is also insulting to all the architects of the Good Friday Agreement and those who have kept it up ever since, including successive Irish governments. While EU free trade created the open border after the British army withdrew, the Dublin leaders seriously overrate the role that “Europe” has played in the peace process – if we are to take them literally. And just by the way, what do they suppose would be the effect on the cohesion within the Executive after all that patient diplomacy? A price worth paying perhaps?
But there’s no point is telling them to shut up when they’ve already spoken. So let’s go with it and play scenarios. The unity theme could come into play quite early if the Irish government rejected British terms for triggering Article 50 – that is, if they didn’t go forward with something like a bid for EEA status and decided first to withdraw from the EU and then start negotiating separate trade treaties throughout the world. This would presumably make a hard border more likely. New differences between London and Dublin would overshadow the harmony created since 1994 as the peace process developed.
To avoid them Ireland could suggest joint sovereignty as a means of trying to maintain the open border and keep Northern Ireland within the EU. Or they could press for a border poll. While unity itself is decided by the people in both parts of Ireland, the decision to hold a poll is a matter for the British government
“… the Secretary of State shall exercise the power under paragraph 1 if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.”
Criteria for a decision aren’t spelt out – no doubt deliberately. In 1998 this was a can they wanted to kick far down the road. A nationalist majority in the Assembly would set the bar too high. The assumption is that they’d go on a run of opinion polls after a long period of debate which would see a significant shift in unionist opinion and no threat of serious disorder.How would they feel about the parallel poll in the south? Or, contrary to the whole thrust of the GFA, would they try to sit that one out?
So the question the Irish have to answer now is: are you serious? If you don’t like the British negotiating position going into the Article 50 process, will you ask the British government to regard the Remain vote which included a fair minority of unionists as evidence which favours a border poll? Do you think the British would agree?
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