A “likely” story – the Secretary of State needs to explain under what circumstances he would hold a border poll

Following the release of Lord Ashcroft’s poll earlier today, showing that a narrow majority of Northern Ireland voters are in favour of Irish unification once those not expressing an opinion are excluded, it is worth exploring the crucial role that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has on the question of whether a border poll is held.

Schedule 1, paragraph 2 of the Good Friday Agreement states that “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”.

As pointed out by Brendan Heading, there is nothing whatsoever in the agreement that states under what circumstances it would “appear likely” to the Secretary of State that a majority voting would vote for Irish unity. There is certainly nothing in the agreement regarding opinion polls, or even the result of an Assembly election, that would compel the Secretary of State to hold a poll.

As can be shown in the chart at the top of the post, support for Irish unity has risen extremely quickly since the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU in 2016, and is clearly and obviously a direct result of the referendum. Attitudes towards Irish unity vary enormously depending on which outcome the Brexit process will take.

A LucidTalk poll at the end of 2018 showed that support for Irish unity varied between 33% (given no Brexit at all) and 57% (given a “hard” Brexit). There have been very few opinion polls on the border question in Northern Ireland in 2019, but the figure from the Lord Ashcroft poll of 51% support for Irish unification is in line with polls in 2018 where support was in the high 40s.

On the question of a border poll, it follows that the two crucial questions are:

  • Is it objectively likely that a majority of Northern Ireland voters would vote for Irish unity?
  • If so, under what circumstances would the Secretary of State satisfy himself that this is the case?

On the first question, as is the case regarding Scottish independence (there is also a 51%-49% split in favour of independence according the most recent poll by YouGov for The Times), and indeed the question of UK’s membership of the EU (the same split in favour of Remain according to the most recent poll by Kantar), public opinion appears to be almost precisely split down the middle.

If there is a hard border introduced due to Brexit, then the polling evidence suggests that there is indeed an objective likelihood that a majority of Northern Ireland voters would vote for unity at a referendum. Other potential outcomes are less clear.

It would certainly help if there were more opinion polls. Since the EU referendum, there have been nine polls on the question of a border poll. Over the same period, there have been 56 polls regarding Scottish independence.

Regarding the second question, it would clearly be a contravention of the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement if a Secretary of State was adamant that a vote was unlikely to result in a vote for Irish unity in the face of mounting empirical evidence.

Given the recent dramatic shifts in public opinion in Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State needs to explain his reasoning as to under what circumstances he would consider it “likely” that a majority would express a wish for Northern Ireland to become part of a united Ireland.