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.


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  • Paddy Reilly

    “Covenanters are not against voting, as such. But we must ask: is there anywhere a candidate who is committed to practical dissent from the Christ-dishonouring aspects of the constitution and a return to the obligations of the Solemn League and Covenant? Has any made even the slightest public assertion of the rights of Jesus Christ over politics as King of nations? We have not heard of any such. This silence means that loyalty to King Jesus requires we vote for no-one.”

  • Starviking

    I will be voting against for for the SDLP this election, in the hope my constituency will get a representative who will go to Westminster. That does not mean I support a Border Poll – I definitely do not, and I don’t think I ever will. However, if one is to be held, then it must be after civic society is firmly entrenched in Northern Ireland: under any other conditions it would lead to chaos.

  • grumpy oul man

    And without invoking a dead cat (try to keep it non historical) could you perhaps give us a example.
    Something like denying people the right to marry but keeping that right for yourself.

  • Paddy Reilly

    Poultry is most efficiently enumerated after eclosion.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I’m still trying to puzzle out how “equality” can actually be weaponised. If its not of the Unionist “some animals are more equal than others” variety its always going to be counter-productive to the kind of “my side” thinking which is what “weaponised” is all about.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Again, a real example would help. You can say a thing, for example “lie on your belly with your toes in the air” but it’s how it’s down that actually counts……

  • SeaanUiNeill

    With about 50% here “electing” to follow Yeats’ suggestion to “stay at home and drink your beer and let your neighbour vote” simple figures mean very, very little. Granni is right isn suggesting that this is a Chinese balls problem rather than a two teams sporting fixture.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Cináed, If an historical action is still working itself out in the present it requires our attention. I’d certainly not choose to blame people today personally for ancestral choices, my own great grandfather was certainly very active in first wave Unionism in the 18800/90s, but if an organised body of people, Unionist or Republican, blindly valorise historical actions which have structurally contributed to the ongoing degeneration of normal life in our community, they are certainly just as culpable as those carrying out the inceptive actions, people and political organisations whose folly and culpable recklessness they refuse to even begin to recognise.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    The important issue here, Cináed, is how far Noel Little’s Terrorist activity has been openly and categorically rejected by his daughter. We know she is stridently open against Republican Terrorism, but has she actually distanced herself in any way from her father’s career? As you quite rightly say, every one of us should distance ourselves from Terrorism, particularly that which “is more ‘personal’ as the propaganda that surrounds much of it alleges that it was/is prosecuted in my name.” How much more so if such violence is historically present in ones very family.

    It is this ambiguity within the DUP, where they have always been prepared to critique their opponents as terrorists while all too often ignoring the violence of their own people which makes their stance on such matters so very difficult to accept. Pengelly all too dramatically illustrates this moral contradiction by her silence on her father’s past. If she has anywhere gone on record on this matter, I’d value a link.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    But exactly how have they been asked how they will vote? The framing of the question is the all important thing, as in “when did you stop beating your wife?”

  • 1729torus

    I was predicting the rough distribution of opinion going forward. Individuals do their own thing, but aggregates have far less freedom.

    It’s very unusual for every member of the population to deviate from the mean in the same direction, so much of the individual variation tends to cancel itself out when everyone’s views are tallied up. For every Rory McIlroy, there might be a Ronnie Bunting – and vice versa.

    The technical term is “concentration of measure”, the probabilities become more concentrated as the number of samples increases. Statistical arguments are very Heraclitean when presented correctly.

    The dilemma is that if you gloss over the technicalities, you risk sounding naive, if you include them, people go to sleep.

  • Msiegnaro

    The same thing was said before AE17 when SF romped home in NB.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Oh I agree that some people may go to sleep, but never the people who matter.

    You’ll see from the length and “careful detail” of my usual comments where I’m coming from in this…….

  • MainlandUlsterman

    “excluding others, no religion” though 🙂 And therein lies the real demographic story … It’s only by exclusing those that this supposedly rosy picture for nationalism emerges.

    Here are the actual 2011 Census percentages:
    Catholic: 40.8 per cent
    Protestant: 41.6 per cent
    Other religion: 0.8 per cent
    No religion / not stated: 16.9 per cent
    (Yes I know that adds up to 100.1 per cent, that’s rounding up sub-totals for you.)

    What the 2011 Census shows – and we can expect this to continue apace – is religious affiliation falling away at quite a rate. Almost 17 per cent put no religion or wouldn’t state religion (over 300,000 people). It’s part of wider global social trends away from tight community cohesion and towards individualism, from which N Ireland is not excepted. Put simply, there is just not going to be a solid enough Catholic block to carry a united Ireland vote.

    Of those putting no religion (and I’d be one of these myself if I were in NI), only around 1 in 7 – one in seven – was “Irish-only” (rather than British or N Irish). The most common affiliation was British-only, followed by Northern Irish in that group. This is the big growth group. The Catholic percentage actually only went up by 0.5 per cent in the 2011 Census and remember that includes non-Irish Catholics, who may or may not follow the united Ireland feeling of Irish Catholics. The reality on Irish Catholic population figures for Northern Ireland is that there has been very slow growth indeed for several decades now.

    What has been fooling some into assuming bigger Catholic growth is apparent Protestant decline. But it’s clear most of the religiously non-aligned are ‘former’ Protestants who might be described as culturally British. So the decline in ‘Protestants’ isn’t quite as precipitous as it at first appears and as it has been reported.

    That’s before you even get into how many Catholics say they don’t want a united Ireland in the immediate future. Which is why surveys consistently bring in pro-United Ireland figures below the 30 per cent mark, rising to slightly above when you strip out the don’t knows – and that’s even after the disaster for the Union of the Brexit vote.

  • 1729torus

    That map was intended to argue that repartition was unviable, rendering your comment somewhat irrevelevant.

  • grumpy oul man

    Most amusing. I could actually feel the straws being grasped.
    Of course as soon as a irish person stops being a catholic thay automatically become a unionist.
    But does the reverse happen when a protestant stops going to church do they stop being British.
    Probably the daftest and most secterian thing i have read on slugger for quite a while.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Why show 2 maps then, based on age cohorts?

    I think repartition is not politically appealing to either unionists or nationalists so won’t happen, but I’d be quite open to it. Making the border as accurate as possible makes sense. The main downside is once you have shifted it once, you can then get a momentum going for more chipping away. I think that’s the main reason not to do it.

  • grumpy oul man

    Well it say a lot about Unionists that equality is a useful ” weapon” that can break. them.
    Like i said before Gerry. Made a off the cuff remark and now unionists see the whole equality movement as a plot.
    Do you have the slightness idea how that makes unionisn look to the rest of the world.
    And Gerry invented equality! Wow the womens rights movement are provos and the gay rights movement are they Shinners.

  • Skibo

    NWJ I see things through my eyes and through my experiences. I speak for nobody else. You do the same and can only speak for yourself, your understanding of the world and your fears.
    I hear Unionists talk about being part of the UK helps as it is 65 million people. I have merely shown that some are happy to leave a larger union to be part of a smaller union.
    I as a Republican suggest it would be rather more pragmatic to leave the smaller union and stay part of the larger union.

  • grumpy oul man

    Yea and Teresa never ever changes her mind.
    And the Tories have never used the unionists and dumped them when no longer needed.

  • Skibo

    TM has shown she is capable of doing u turns and u turns on u turns. If you are relying on her to place the position of the North within the Union above the access of the UK to the EU market, you may be disapointed.

  • Smithborough

    It doesn’t specifically contravene the GFA. It seems highly unlikly that a border poll would lead to a united Ireland and highly likely that it would lead to a lot of polarisation. For this reason a border poll makes little sense as a strategy if they want to keep going by GFA rules which seek a gradual UI, not a crisis one.