Northern Ireland sleepwalking to an off-script unification…

Northern Ireland is sleepwalking into an off-script unification, which commands a majority in the north but not in the south, or one which Dublin has failed to prepare for. A late Aug poll says Brexit creates a 52-39% majority for unification in NI. If no Brexit, 52-35% favours stay.

However, only 31% of voters to the south favour unification if this increases taxes. (This compares with 63% if taxes remain the same – 2015 BBC/RTÉ poll.) NI would lose or displace to Dublin the current £10bn annual subvention. Shifted to Dublin, this hits living standards 15%.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement commits Dublin and London to respect whatever ‘choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of NI with regard to its status’. At the same time, text says unification requires ‘consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South’. (It’s not clear if southern consent is parliamentary or through referendum; ‘people of Ireland’ suggests the latter.)

The FG-led gov’t has precisely zero enthusiasm for unification. Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said 7 Nov. that ‘conflating Brexit with Irish unity is unhelpful and misguided’. In May, Tánaiste/Foreign Minister Simon Coveney called border calls ‘not wise and not welcome’.

Unification is more in the DNA of FF. SF have said they would not enter coalition with either ‘Civil War party’ but a scenario is not impossible where SF enters a confidence and supply arrangement with FF in which Taoiseach Martin supports putting unification on the table.

FG currently ranges 30-35% in the polls, FF 22-27%, SF 14-24%. Dublin officialdom wants to calm the North back into renewed powersharing, and so has avoided thinking through what unification might look like. Would Stormont devolution continue, what’s the future of the subvention? Plus estimating needed increases to the Defence Forces and Gardaí budget.

This is understandable but raises the risk of an off-script unification – where a NI majority favours unity, southern opinion does not (at least if it raises taxes), and the white papers haven’t been done.

Three scenarios: Brexit’s cancelled, the DUP (which has broken its own confidence and supply agreement with the CP) loses its outsized voice at Westminster, Stormont resumes. Unity is kicked down the field half a generation.

Or, Brexit (deal or no) goes ahead, Taoiseach Varadkar remains in office, Dublin reticence and continued Westminster inattention is enough to pour cold water on a border poll based on a 53-56% majority.

Or: Dublin and London politics flip with a PM Corbyn (with Labour blipping ahead in polls) favouring a border poll, possibly with a Taoiseach Martin backed up by a ?Tánaiste MLD. But basic questions remain about subvention, S opinion, and the arrival of the DUP in Dáil Éireann.

The first two look more likely to me right now, but the third is plausible and, combined with NI opinion polling, suggests the risk of an abrupt and unplanned constitutional change is significant – one for which Dublin is incredibly unprepared.

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