Deep in the last ditch before Tuesday’s meaningful vote, the UK government are warning that the DUP’s refusal to back Mrs May’s deal brings a border poll nearer. The warning was put into the mouth of Karen Bradley who political anoraks may just remember is the minister with nominal responsibility for Northern Ireland affairs.
No 10 put out one of their coy little briefings to say that she “told the Cabinet” that a border poll on the reunification of Ireland was “far more likely” if the United Kingdom crashed out of the European Union without a withdrawal agreement in place.
“No deal is bad for the whole United Kingdom, because it does put in jeopardy some of those constitutional arrangements,” she told the BBC.
“I’m sure it will create feelings of unrest with people in all parts of the UK who didn’t want to see us leave the EU.”
Her statement, carried prominently in the broadsheet papers, appears to signal the end of any hope of persuading the DUP to support the Deal, and perhaps foreshadows the end of the DUP- Conservative pact.
Naturally there was no acknowledgement that it is Brexit itself that’s at odds with the avowed aim of protecting the “precious Union.”
Asked about the impact of No Deal on support for a border poll, (which is what the weasel words “feelings of unrest” mean), she could only reply darkly that she was “well aware of my statutory obligations under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and I am well aware the constitutional status of Northern Ireland is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland.”
We’re invited to draw the implication that a border poll is closer than many people think. Is this realism or Project Fear? Does it raise or lower the chances of a restoration of Stormont if as would seem necessary, such a happy development was preceded by an Assembly election that recorded a nationalist vote of over say 40% and a border poll was included in the manifestos of Sinn Fein and the SDLP? This is a question raised by her own ominous speculation that I imagine the hapless Ms Bradley would run several marathons to avoid answering.
Her “statutory obligations” have been raised below by QUB law professor Colin Harvey who is one of a number of civic nationalists in dialogue with the Dublin government. He defines the challenge to both governments which has already been described in Slugger several times including here.
It is therefore credible to argue that faced with this outcome ( No Deal) (and in light of existing evidence) it would appear likely to any Secretary of State that a majority of people would ‘express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland’.
Where the conclusion reached is that it does appear likely (that this would be the result) there is then a duty on the Secretary of State to act (may turns into shall). That means the necessary preparations should be made for such a vote as part of planning for a ‘no deal’, and that includes naming a timeframe.
As this requires ‘concurrent referendums’ then similar preparations should be made by the Irish Government. So, in the specific context of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, it is arguable that the test for initiating a process leading to a vote on our constitutional future will have been met. The political wisdom of all this is a distinctive question and even raising it often invites strong reactions. The intention here is simply to suggest that sensible planning would be wise.
There are three obvious replies.
So much depends on whether No Deal is the outcome. I assume it won’t be. But that doesn’t dispose of the idea of a border poll.
- No agreement – the May deal including the Ireland/NI protocol, a customs union, or a Norway variant – is conceivable without a revival of close engagement between the two governments to administer the outcome in these islands. This ought to be the priority. Consideration of unity referendums alone would unnecessarily raise unionist hackles and could even be destabilising in a seriously febrile political environment. I think this would be the majority view.
- However there should be no unionist veto. I would go further than Harvey and recommend that when the Brexit dust settles during the transition period, the two governments should embark on complementary studies for holding referendums. If a “People’s vote” seems likely this will happen on the British side anyway and should include a border poll. Forward planning of this type goes against the tradition of governments to close their eyes and brains to potentially (for them) unpleasant outcomes, in the belief that raising an issue in theory tends to bring it nearer in practice. The temptation will be to stall – the familiar line of least resistance – while the demand for it rises. But the lessons of the Brexit referendum should supersede old instincts. The modalities for calling a border poll devised in the climate of optimism of the GFA are far too vague and one sided to be satisfactory. Voters in the Republic may not be entirely happy for the momentous decision on unity to be virtually dictated by northern nationalists.
While consideration of the modalities of a border poll might provoke “unrest” among unionists, it should be conducted confidently and transparently, combined with a dynamic programme of British-Irish, north-south cooperation that an agreed Brexit outcome demands. This would create a more stable and attractive environment than the prospect of revived struggle over Irish unity. The simple question is: under conceivable conditions would a border poll add significantly to human happiness? It’s a question we should all face together.
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