Brokenshire’s line on a border poll won’t do. Straight after next week’s election, it will be incumbent to spell out terms and conditions for holding a unity referendum. And Dublin cannot be left out

In their manifesto,  the SDLP have now joined Sinn Fein in calling for a unity referendum, albeit on slightly different terms. Both are linking it to Brexit. If the combined nationalist share of the vote next week reaches 40+% which is highly manageable, can a unity referendum or border poll, reasonably be denied?  If not, what is reasonable?  By one reckoning a 50% threshold would seem unreasonably high for our divided community. By another, a referendum should wait until nationalists have the support of 50% of voters in line with demographic trends  (though not necessarily voting), or 50% of Assembly seats.

What then are the choices? Can they be impartially evaluated or are they bound to be based on political calculation?  The decision is in the hands of that remote figure, the Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire.

Adds Brokenshire 

In choosing today to launch the Conservative party’s Northern Ireland Brokenshire declared:

 I remain satisfied on the basis of all reliable indicators of the continued support for the devolved administration, the principles and the structures and institutions that are underpinned within the Belfast Agreement (1998) and its successors, and I am very clear that the requirements for a border poll are not remotely satisfied,” he said.

“Obviously we keep these issues under very close and careful review but I think in terms of the way people vote, that people may vote for one party but that doesn’t necessarily mean they want to see a change to the institutions, that they want to see a change to the foundations that underpin all of that stability that has been achieved from the Belfast Agreement and thereafter…

“As I see it, the support for those institutions, the support for Northern Ireland remaining a core part of the United Kingdom, remains very firmly there,” he said.

The Conservative manifesto document rules out any possibility of the region being administered on the basis of joint authority between the UK and Irish Republic if a new powersharing executive is not formed following the resumption of negotiations after the General Election.

Will Brokenshire favour us with an explanation of why he thinks the requirements are not “remotely satisfied” and state his criteria for satisfying  them, as a properly accountable minister should?  Or does absolutely everything depend on the Brexit outcome, even thinking about huge consequences  like the future of the Union and Northern Ireland’s stability?

He has to demonstrate better than stating the negative that he  is able to reconcile  his instincts as a conservative and unionist politician supporting a party that won 0.3% share and 2,399 votes in the March Assembly election, with the  duty of a British minister to administer all aspects of the GFA impartially as the law requires, including fulfilling  his obligations to his Irish partners. No decision requires more fair mindedness and diplomatic skill than this.  I’m not at all convinced that the outspoken Leo Varadkar will be satisfied, if this is all we get.

It might be better to establish a clear trend of over 40% plus across successive elections.  Unfortunately for the many longing for normal politics, the unity theme would become more dominant than ever.  How would it affect  the prospects for more constructive domestic politics? Wreck them altogether; or is there just a chance of encouraging them, if the  rivals try to sweet talk the other side  to win the precious margin in either direction? Professor Jon Tonge writing in the Belfast Telegraph believes that a deal might already have been announced, were it not for the interruption of the Westminster election. Others are not so sure.

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.

The Secretary of State shall not make an order under paragraph 1 earlier than seven years after the holding of a previous poll under this Schedule

In the GFA  setting the criteria for how it would “appear to him” (sic) that a majority would express a wish for a united Ireland was left vague, no doubt deliberately, and postponed for another day.  The secretary of state may be holding a line until after next week’s election, but the day cannot be far off.

The issue needs setting in context. A poll would await the verdict of the Brexit negotiations.  Gerry Adams wants it to happen within five years.

But if  either nationalist party were to be pleasantly surprised at the outcome of the negotiations; say if Theresa May’s vision of free trading with  appropriate light customs arrangements was actually achieved, or “special designated status”  with a similar result  was offered to the North by the EU and accepted by the UK government, would the nationalist parties change their minds about the need to hold a unity referendum?

Pigs might fly. The strong EU-angle would be exposed as a tactic. Sinn Fein make no bones about it. They expect – hope for? – a hard Brexit.

It might be thought that  a single election next week should not be conclusive and that the next one – the local government elections of 2019, say – might provide the  corroborative test.  Or you could see a neat scenario of yet another Assembly election around the same time, for Sinn Fein to return to the Assembly linked to a demand for a border poll.

So we’re in for years of identity politics in the raw.  As soon as the Westminster election is over we can expect it to figure more prominently in or around the party talks.

At long last, this secretary of state or a successor will surely be compelled to say something meaningful.  However you can bet that there’ll  be a hue and cry to demand that the decision should no longer be left to a British minister anyway, whatever the GFA says. What  does the Irish government think, as Kenny hands over almost certainly  to Varadkar?  Fianna Fail won’t be left out of the calculations.

Dublin is bound to be closely involved in their own as well as the North’s interest.  They have already achieved EU acceptance of a united Ireland within the EU by consent. This emphatically does not mean they are in favour of a border poll. How big is the risk of the northern tail wagging the southern dog?

Here is a run of questions for consideration.

Should the GFA be renegotiated  to require  the decision on a Northern referendum to be taken jointly by the two governments?

Should  the perceived  gap of an arbitrary seven years between two referendums in the North  (border polls), survive?

Under the present  law, how does the secretary of state judge “ what seems likely to him” that a majority of the electorate would vote for a UI?

  • On a run of opinion polls and Life and Times surveys ?  Some unionists are saying “ bring it on.” How long a run of polls and surveys? What questions?
  • Specially commissioned polls with the questions approved by the Electoral Commission?
  • A combined nationalist  share of the vote in one, two or more regional elections of any kind?
  • A majority of members voting for it in the Assembly or any other regional election?
  • A simple, or cross community majority vote in the Assembly?
  • Without an Assembly, a people’s petition requiring Downing St’s criteria  of 10,000 petitions   to require a government response? Then 250,000 say to trigger a referendum?
  • A mix of polls, surveys and elections over an electoral  cycle of five years?

The two referendums north and south are supposed to be concurrent.  Does the Republic have an effective veto on UI if the North votes yes and they vote No?  How might this be managed?  If so what is the holding pattern for another go? The North must delay for seven years as the law stands.

The decision is for both parts of Ireland alone. But must the British government be neutral?

One thing is certain. Deciding on the criteria for holding a unity referendum is only a beginning.


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