When super is better than simple in a border poll

Sometime in the future I foresee the birth of a baby fated to change the course of Irish history. At the time its nationalist parents won’t be aware of how special their child is. In fact its identity may never be known. It’s not that the young person is destined to perform some heroic action. All he or she has to do is put an X on a ballot paper. But the impact of that will be profound.

Here’s the scenario I’m envisaging. The numbers favouring a united Ireland are moving relentlessly upwards. On the day before a border poll, which just happens to coincide with young person’s 18th birthday, nationalist and unionist opinion on the border is evenly matched. The next morning the young nationalist’s vote swings the first ever majority in favour of the unification of Ireland.

In theory that could happen. It only takes fifty per cent plus one to remove the border. I’m assuming here that the Republic wouldn’t reject the outcome in its own referendum. In reality when the ballot eventually takes place, there may be a margin of a few thousand in support of change. Even with that more substantial number, the result would still be turning on less than a fraction of one per cent of the entire electorate.

Some apprehension has already been expressed about such a prospect. There is a natural fear that unification, especially if delivered by a very slender majority, would spark a loyalist insurrection. It’s a danger than can’t be dismissed but are we really arguing that the threat of violence should either prevent or drive constitutional change. It hasn’t been allowed to up to this point.

There is, however, another quite different issue to consider here. Once the people have voted, that should be it. The decision should leave no good grounds for further change. But if the margin were small, there would be no sense of finality. As soon as the result was announced, unionists would clamour for another vote. And who could legitimately deny them their right to try and reverse the decision or in due course to secede from the new Republic.

It’s possible that once everybody had sampled the delights of living in a United Ireland, few would want to break away again but I wouldn’t count on it. A small margin would invite instability.

The solution is to require the abolition or restoration of the border to be supported by more than fifty per cent of the votes through the application of the supermajority principle. Change in either direction would only happen if say 65% of voters backed it. Such a prescription would presumably require a change in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 but that of itself shouldn’t be an insurmountable barrier.

While simple majorities are the norm for most democratic decisions, there are examples around the world where supermajorities, double, qualified and weighted majorities are specified for some key votes.

A combination of a double majority and a supermajority is routinely needed for votes on EU legislation. The European Council uses simple majorities for procedural matters but when the Council votes on proposals from the Commission, the backing of 55% of members states is required and those states must themselves represent at least 65% of the total EU population.

You don’t have to travel far as far as Brussels though to find an application of the supermajority principle. At Stormont, decisions which require cross community assent can be delivered through the ‘Weighted Majority’ mechanism. In those circumstances, 60% of all MLAs including 40% of both unionist and nationalist members have to declare their approval before a measure is passed.

Supermajorities are not foreign to the democratic process. Not in this country or abroad. In a border poll, the imposition of one would guarantee stability but would also confer another huge benefit.

On the assumption that the population remains split roughly fifty fifty on a religious basis, a substantial proportion of Protestant voters, perhaps as high as 40%, would have to back unification to make it a realistic possibility in a supermajority referendum. At a stroke, the campaign to remove the border would be stripped of its sectarian character as much of the crucial discussion would be taking place among Protestants not between them and Catholics. We might conceivably then have a thorough going exchange of views that rises above the usual tub thumping which characterises so much of what passes for political debate here.