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.














  • mac tire

    I think they are absolutely genuine about getting the Assembly up and running. If it is, it will be on the genuine sharing of power and surely no-one could be against that.

    However, while it is tempting to attribute ulterior motives on SF being out of the Executive, it is worth remembering that SF are out because their voters demanded it. (Remember all the Felons’ Club jibes on here?).

    SF, reacting to their voter base, became even more popular for their actions over the space of two elections. Now, it may well suit SF now that they are out and Brexit is still up in the air – but that wasn’t the cause. It has nothing to do with Direct Rule either “which it can then use to its advantage to present NI as dysfunctional” – in case you haven’t noticed – NI is dysfunctional (it has always been thus).

    Nationalists/Republicans have been demanding that SF ensure the GFA and subsequent agreements are adhered to. And SF are doing precisely that.

    But, of course, Unionism could remove the excuses from SF tomorrow. And if SF had these dastardly plans you attribute to them (Direct Rule, letting Brexit happen without an input from here), well, Unionism has it within their power now to foil those too.

    Your last comments denigrating actual and potential SF voters as “letting key commitments slide” and being easily led by your implication that they would “lap up” blame or hate(?) for Unionists and that they would be allowed to “get away with anything” are insulting, MU.

    You appear to be in 1980s mode by default. Pity, you have other interesting things to say sometimes.

  • runnymede

    Somehow I can’t see nationalists going for this. They should of course, in exactly the same way that sensible nationalists elsewhere in Europe (eg Sth Tirol) have abandoned the idea of irredentism and settled for sensible regionalism instead,

  • runnymede

    The nationalists’ ‘inevitability’ mantra reminds me of the strange obsessions supporters of minor football clubs have about their dreadful teams ‘one day’ making it to the cup final etc.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    at least the supporters of minor clubs tend to have a sense of realism and self-effacing humour about their serial disappointment. Also, they don’t force all other football matches to be suspended until they win something.

  • Thanks for the link. I didn’t realise Foster was more extreme than Paisley – nearly 20 years after GFA.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    quite hard to insult SF voters though, no? I mean, they actually vote for SF while knowing it’s the IRA’s political wing. I’d have thought they were fair game. But I didn’t intend to insult you and sorry if I did.

    I would like to see a much more socially liberal party lead unionism but there we are. I don’t think unionism has any power to foil SF’s plans. If SF really wants a period of direct rule, and seeks to prevent harmony in NI to further the case for a united Ireland, there is nothing unionists can do.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    but I do hope you’re right about SF wanting to make the Assembly and Executive work. I don’t claim to have any inside knowledge on them, just observed them and read about them over the decades. I can’t help feeling it is not in their interests to have a Northern Ireland at peace with itself.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    The DUP were deeply wrong in 1998 and I massively opposed them at the time on that basis. But they did come around, to a large extent.

    I didn’t say Alliance was more important than SF – the whole thing was basically to get the IRA to stop without SF looking like they’d lost – my point was Alliance’s natural position was closer to the shape of the deal than any other party’s. Alliance had little of the action precisely because they didn’t have to be dragged in from an extreme.

  • The future payment arrangements need to be decided before the border poll so that voters can make an informed choice. Otherwise – during the campaign – the Unionists will claim they’ll be nowt and their opponents pennies from heaven.

    If the UK does leave the EU, it might be politically easier for the UK to use the EU as the intermediary for the payments.

  • Not just in Westminster.

  • erasmus

    I’m also a Dubliner. A UI is a Holy Grail; you just can’t put a price on it.

  • mac tire

    Well, insulting a varied collection of people as one group isn’t a nice thing to do. It would be like me calling all DUP voters sectarian, backward bigots – they aren’t. I can criticise the DUP and what they stand/stood for without doing that to those who vote for them. I may not agree with those votes but that’s tough on my part.

    Unionism could sit down with others and ensure all agreements are being adhered to and approach sharing power without insult and in the spirit in which it was intended. All parties could.
    In doing that, then if SF afterwards wanted to cause instability etc that will become clear and the people can make their own minds about that. Surely it’s a way of proving Unionism’s narrative about SF?

  • Surveyor

    If 50+1 was good enough to instigate Brexit, it’s good enough in the case for a United Ireland. It will be ironic and hilarious to see the DUP’ers being branded as remoaners. I can just see the look on wee Ian’s face now.

  • Surveyor

    You don’t even live here any more, do you?

  • Ciaran74

    Kudos for the comment on the DUP’s early position. Whilst that was true, it’s a position that echoes now and recently with the deposing of Ian Snr, and the mean attitude as they saw SF as a pining political pup, rather than the militant Rottweiler.

    And you did infer SF’s influence on the GFA was not what others was whilst they were pivotal to a cessation of militant violence. Your mimicking unionist politics MU – you can come in the front door, as long as you don’t act the wag.

    Arlene only had to step aside for 3 weeks. Super majorities are pretty fanciful.

  • Stephen Kelly

    I am a new Sinn Feinn voter and i can assure you i am full of harmony.

  • Georgie Best

    Why should we aspire to remain as second class citizens in our own country?

  • Distancerunner

    You are being sooooo generous to the unionists, but do they deserve it when they have not been equally generous to the nationalist population over many years? ‘Oh, let’s let bygones be bygones!’ we might say, We might, but they wouldn’t. If seemingly reputable unionists on this site and elsewhere can seriously put forward spurious justification for objecting to an Irish language Act today, there is every reason to think they will continue in the same obstructive vein in the future. Their justification, largely unspoken, is the denial of Irish identity when NI is part of a British state. However, this is a denial of equality, often expressed with a sense of entitlement (I think of crocodiles!)

    The prospects of unionist parties being able to perpetuate the particular mindset that has caused so much suffering and humiliation to the Catholic/nationalist population since the creation of the state for another half century – the time possibly needed for your 65% criterion to be met – presents an appalling vista. Against the wishes of a simple-majority nationalist population, it would inevitably lead to instability. The proposal is naive and politically unrealistic.

  • Sean Danaher

    I would have thought the same 35 years ago before I moved to the UK. These days I am more worried by good governance and “parity of esteem” or “cherishing all the children of a nation equally” than sovereignty. The NI politician who most greatly influenced my thinking was John Hume, its areal shame that the SDLP have been eclipsed by SF. A UI needs to be built on trust and mutual respect. I think Brexit will be such a disaster for NI and will make the comparison between E and W Germany seem trivial but as Boris said “Brexit will be a Titanic success” so whom am I to disagree

  • Hugh Davison

    Wasn’t it the Dutch that took over in 1689?

  • runnymede


  • runnymede

    You aren’t. No more than the Scots or Welsh are, or the many english Catholics.

  • Georgie Best

    I doubt if the Welsh first minister would describe the Welsh language as being on a par with Polish or Chinese, or describe measures to support it as being akin to feeding reptiles. And while the English Catholics are not in a colony, they are still second class citizens as they are prohibited by law from becoming Head of State or even marrying that person. That such official sectarianism remains in the 21st century is truly shocking.

  • runnymede

    Oh please how laughable. Do you seriously think english (or any other) catholics lie awake at night agonising over how the Act of Settlement makes them second class citizens? Get a life.

  • john millar

    “Thanks for the link. I didn’t realise Foster was more extreme than Paisley – nearly 20 years after GFA.”

    Having you school bus bombed –while you are in it –tends to influence ones attitude to the perpetrator(s) and their supporters/successors

  • The Saint

    You see the initial partition of Ireland was against the cast majority of its people. Which undermined the foundation of both State and statelet. This is why nationalists (unless there is buy in, which unionists don’t seem to want) will rarely if ever see nIreland as anything but an aboration.

  • 05OCT68

    Mallie’s article clearly states that many Nationalists didn’t support “the armed struggle” & attempts to explain the raise in support for SF by moderate nationalists.

  • Brendan Heading

    We cannot make the mistakes of Brexit in this matter a nd have a vote on something which is not defined.

    The parallels with brexit are indeed striking. Since Irish reunification, like brexit, is an ideological matter for most nationalist voters, there is no plan, there has been no attempt to produce a plan, and I doubt we will ever see one. which is a huge problem when it comes to persuading swing voters. I struggle with understanding how this is given that nationalism has had a century to decide what it wants.

    Indeed I would suggest a vote of some sort to bring about a planing process and a further vote on the outcome of that process, although I expect the unionists would try and block discussion.

    That’s not what is in the agreement. The vote happens, and the UK government are then bound to bring legislation to give effect to it to parliament. No timetable is specified, of course.

    To answer your original question, it goes without saying that Alliance would respect the referendum result and work constructively towards its proper implementation. But we’re walking before we’re running here. A referendum is very unlikely under the current rules. And if it happens it appears more likely than anything that it would fall.

  • john millar

    “Mallie’s article clearly states that many Nationalists didn’t support “the armed struggle” & attempts to explain the raise in support for SF by moderate nationalists.”

    These “moderate nationalists” support a party proud of its leaders activities.
    Save me from “moderate nationalists”

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Yet one they agreed in 1998 was legitimate and democratically based …?

  • The Saint

    We needed peace hence GFA and my full support. But does that absolve the fact that nIreland is a gerrymandered artificial construct that was against the will of the Irish people? no

    British democracy at its finest then browbeat the natives into acceptance.

  • 05OCT68

    Moderate Nationalism is either the Unions friend or it’s enemy depending on how it feels valued in NI. Many have turned to SF, fed up with DUP name calling & disrespect for their position. How long moderate nationalist that don’t vote will put up with being poked with a stick is anyone’s guess, why take the chance of turning them into SF voters? In a 50%+1 they could be crucial to Unionism. Unless one considers all Nationalists to be rebels at heart with a pike always in the thatch. As for supporting proud leaders activities, there is a statue in Stormont of a man that threatened armed insurrection against the crown ( a traitor), using German made guns when the threat of war with Germany was imminent. Save me from loyal Unionists.

  • Georgie Best

    Ah yes, the old MOPE argument, it is ok to discriminate as long as it isn’t that bad.

  • Georgie Best

    The current rules state when a referendum “must” be held, they do not state when one may take place. They do not require a particular planning process in advance, but they do not rule one out. There is no plan now, partly because the largest nationalist party is not capable of one, but mostly because the time has not yet come. It is not the case that nationalism has had a century without a plan, it has produced the concept of an Ireland where everyone is equal. Some people are not happy with being merely equal, but many would consider change if everyone was obviously allow contribute. But NI is such an economic basket case that economics will play a big part in the debate. Their could come a time when there was a nationalist First Minister, without an absolute majority of nationalist votes, and this would open the debate. Plenty of debate is desirable, the only requirement is that it be informed by actual facts, unlike Brexit.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    How can an international border be “gerrymandered”? Isn’t the whole point to draw it in a place that minimises minorities on either side?

    Anyway, nationalist leaders all agreed in 1998 that N Ireland is rightly in the UK because it reflects the wishes of the people who live there. Game over on that one.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    on that basis are we not allowed to critcise people’s choice of (ultra-nationalistic) political party? No more jibes at UKIP voters then, Nazis …

  • The Saint

    As you are well aware nIreland was created to preserve a unionist majority, therefore yes gerrymandered. It is not when established a legitimate border it did not have the support of the majority it may have been minority supported, I give you that.

    Be clear GFA was accepted to create peace primarily , accepting the anti democracy nIreland represents was part of it.

    When unionists crib about their sacrifices it means nothing as nationalists made every bit as many and fundamental.

    Legally sure its an int.border but in reality I’d think not 50pc in nIreland see it as a propper border. Perception is everything.

  • Georgie Best

    It is not an inter-national border, as the GFA agreed that the Irish nation was found on both sides of it. It is a border that divides the same nation.

  • Georgie Best

    the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be
    exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the
    diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the
    principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political,
    economic, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for
    all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment
    for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities.”

    Do you think the language of the Gael is given parity of esteem with that of the planter?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Why was this new status for Gaelic not specifically part of the GFA, if it is so essential to SF’s support for it? I want to see legislation for Gaelic, but fail to see why other minority language groups cannot also be protected – or how “rigorous impartiality” is served by doing something for the CNR community (overwhelmingly) on Gaelic without a quid pro quo for the PUL community on a cultural issue of its choice.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    The GFA had overwhelming nationalist support in both the N Ireland vote and the ROI vote on it. It was unequivocal about the legitimacy of the border, indeed the dropping of the Republic’s claim to N Ireland was a particularly high profile aspect of the agreement.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Of course there was a unionist majority in the new N Ireland. You talk as if that was somehow wrong or surprising. Isn’t that what borders the world over aim to create? Otherwise you draw the border somewhere else. The aim surely has to be to minimise the numbers stuck on the ‘wrong side’ – it’s the same with all international borders.

    If you have a better system, please make it known to public international law experts, they might be interested.

  • The Saint

    A necessary concession to move the conversation onwards.

    Still that does not absolve the initial action of establishing the statelet from being devoid of democratic legitimacy.

  • lizmcneill

    How do you think Brexit will affect this?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I think it does. The border drawn where it was was patently better than the Irish nationalist idea of a sea border – that would have left an even larger minority. I guess the nationalist thinking was, 900,000 pro-Union people are of less value than 600,000 Irish nationalists. That thinking was always wrong – it’s simply numerical logic. There is no argument, I’m sorry.

  • The Saint

    I have to say I completely disagree with you and will never see eye to eye on this one. The Irish people spoke Britain ignored the will of the people. The initial action of partition was anti democratic.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    People voted in a Westminster general election and it confirmed that on national identity there were two groups on the island not one. Look at the electoral map from 1918 and you see the divide right there. There was never any agreement from Ulster unionists to secede on the basis of southern votes. Unionists voted in large numbers for the opposite. How would them being taken out of the UK against their will be more democratic than keeping them in the UK? It makes no sense. The same logic would have let the whole UK decide whether Ireland should secede. Self-determination is about letting the people in the area decide as far as possible and drawing borders so as to minimise the numbers who don’t get their wish.

  • The Saint

    You have really summed up my problem I have when unionists or british and democracy are mentioned in the same sentence . The overwhelming majority of Ireland voted for independence a considerable minority in a certain north eastern area voted against. If in a potential future UI referendum, should Derry, Tyrone, Fermangh and Armagh were to return majorities for a UI, would you advocate ‘re partition? Where does the division end? If only Larne and Strangford disagree with the majority should they be entitled to do their own thing? If you approve of the partition in 1922 then you approve of potenial future partitions, adfinitum to suit where power is won and lost?

    Not very democratic.

    Even nIreland voted to stay in EU as did Scotland, should they be entitled to their own way too? Surely you approve of that also as that is what happened in when Ireland was partitioned.

    Democracy was ignored.

    This is the problem with ala carte democrats. Sometimes majority suits, sometimes not so much, so let’s make up our own rules.

    Id wager my house real uk would want shot of nIreland to be perfectly honest. But they aren’t Irish or from Ireland island of. so I wouldn’t see the point of annoying them!!

  • Georgie Best

    The GFA had many things in it, but it isn’t reasonable to say that just because something was not settled in the GFA then there is no need to look at them. And this talk of minority languages is simply an offensive repetition of the DUP comparison of Irish with Chinese or Polish. Immigrants who choose to move from the place where their language is spoken cannot (and do not) expect the same status for that language in their new location. But most unreasonable of all is this “quid pro quo”. The PUL community have given us hundreds of years of anti Irish discrimination, there needs to be some rebalancing towards equality and this will inevitably mean changes without pandering to those who caused that discrimination.
    These attitudes reflected in the DUP indicate how little the PUL community is willing to share NI.

  • Skibo

    Brendan that statement is blatantly wrong. When there is an impression that a vote would succeed, the SOS must call a border poll but that does not mean he/she cannot call one at any time.
    In the end, the only criteria to ensure that a border poll would fail is as long as the Unionist vote keeps above 50%.
    In the last two elections, it has failed to break that threshold.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Democracy hasn’t been ignored. You need to look at what people actually voted on and in what form before drawing big conclusions. In 1918 any analysis of the results would conclude Ireland was divided on the issue of separation. To say Ireland decided x is merely to rule out the possibility of alternative administrative units without saying why. Ruling out a possibility indeed which actually came to pass. Nationalism has failed to explain convincingly why the land border we got was any less democratic an outcome than its proposed sea border, which would have left an even larger number of people on the wrong side of it.

  • Paddy Reilly

    That’s because you are quoting the 1st preference vote, and ignoring those who transfer to the Nationalist side at a later stage.

    Also, the combined SF/SDLP vote is not the same thing as the number of those who might be prepared to consider a United Ireland: that is like thinking that the pro-Brexit vote is the same as the percentage who vote for UKIP.

  • Brendan Heading

    MU is stating a fact. At the time when the talks started in 1996, the only party that went in with a position to implement powersharing was Alliance. The DUP and UUP wanted simple majority devolution. The SDLP’s stated public position was joint authority.

    Sinn Féin never specified what they intended to get from the negotiations because they were still trying to tell their supporters that their strategy was a blueprint for Irish reunification. Aside from prisoner releases and one or two elements on the Irish language, there is nothing in the GFA that came from SF’s negotiating team.

    My recollection of the days immediately following the agreement’s publication is that SFers initially didn’t accept it. They had to be persuaded to accept it by the party leadership. That leadership argued that the plan was to expose unionists and show that they could not be trusted to work a cross-party agreement.

    And you did infer SF’s influence on the GFA was not what others was whilst they were pivotal to a cessation of militant violence.

    There would have been an agreement along the lines of the GFA with or without the IRA ceasefire. On some level, SF knew this was coming, which is why they used John Hume to lever themselves into a position in the centre rather than consign themselves to the political periphery and a war of attrition which the British were slowly winning.

  • Brendan Heading

    The problem is, if you look at electoral results in the long term (say, since partition) the trend is only going one way.

    Unionists are not creating new Unionists. I don’t just mean in terms of birthrate; I mean in terms of bringing the centre on board. Indeed they appear to be doing everything possible to alienate people who are not hostile to the union.

    The view of the Union expressed by the politicians charged with defending it is not merely a formal constitutional link with the UK (which a lot of people have no problem with) but a “certain kind of union”, to paraphrase De Gaulle. It’s a union with no BBC, no Europe, open hostility to foreign/minority languages and cultures, where science and rationality is repudiated, where gay marriage and abortion aren’t allowed, and where people make no effort to try to understand or accomodate minorities. Whatever this is, it isn’t Britishness as many people in the UK would understand it.

    So when you consider that this attempt to enforce a “certain kind of union” essentially makes Northern Ireland ungovernable, which is what orthodox republicans have said since day one, it’s not hard to see where the inevitability argument comes from.

  • Blamigo

    Why use Unionist and not Protestant while simultaneously having no qualms in saying Catholic to make a political point sound more emotive? Sinn Fein also adopt this tactic when they want to play to their tribal gallery, whilst not wanting to appear too parochial themselves. For consistency it’s either Unionist/Nationalist or Protestant/Catholic throughout a discourse. Using Unionist/Catholic is just an emotive cop-out.

  • Ciaran74

    Facts are based on indisputable evidence. Coming from an Alliance member, I’ll take that with a rock of salt.

  • Croiteir

    Live long old horse and you will have grass

  • Croiteir

    I agree – outrageous moving of goalposts that would only be suggested by pro unionism or by southern parties scared of SF. However I would also like to point out that the GFA enshrined the unionist veto, and in doing so discredited the nationalist position, if not delegitimised it, since partition.

  • brianpatterson47

    Backtracking on the GFA already. Another treaty to be broken ” ere the ink wherewith ’twas writ were dry” ?

  • Distancerunner

    I don’t think it was the use of the term ‘Catholic’ that made it sound emotive. It was probably the stark reflection on the reality of the concerted differential treatment meted-out by a whole array of powers in NI towards the minority community, and over such a lengthy period, that made it poignant.

  • Brendan Heading

    I’m more than happy to stand corrected with indisputable evidence.

    The Good Friday Agreement is not an SF document. It’s based on an NIO blueprint dating back to the early 1970s, with political tweaks mostly added by the SDLP and the UUP in that order, with SF insisting in prisoner releases and stuff about the Irish languages.