Assorted thoughts on the realities of border polling and reunification

There is no question that the brexit process is having a seismic effect on the ties that bind the UK’s four constituent parts. The union has never been weaker, not just because the UK now has a government that clearly places little value on it, but also because the populations of Scotland and Northern Ireland are questioning its value in ever greater numbers.

I’ve heard arguments – from supporters and representatives of one political party in particular – that these events put Irish reunification firmly onto the agenda. I’ve even heard the same people argue that pushing for a border poll in these circumstances is within the spirit and intent of the Good Friday Agreement. I think we should look carefully at these assumptions.

Let’s start by talking about the border poll provisions of the 1998 Agreement. It’s true that the current power to hold a border poll at any time comes from the Agreement via it’s associated legislation, the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which includes a slightly modified version of the border poll legislation from 1972. It is also true that the Agreement creates an obligation upon the Secretary of State to call a border poll when certain circumstances arise.

But the Agreement makes no provision requiring the Secretary of State to hold a border poll to test public opinion. He is only mandated to hold the poll to confirm public opinion, in the event that he believes that a majority in favour of reunification is likely to exist. This wording is carefully designed to prevent judicial review of any decision not to hold a border poll, as the Secretary of State is only required to act to belief and not according to any independently verifiable scientific, political or legal standard.

Therefore, it should be clear that the Agreement was manifestly not designed to create a pathway to Irish reunification. It is something which is important, but lesser : a promise from the British government that it will facilitate reunification if that is what people appear to want. This is no innovation of 1998 – the British government formally made this commitment in the early 1970s (and indeed the Government of Ireland Act 1920 did envisage an eventual all-island government). The important detail is that the pathway to Irish reunification must be built before the referendum is called to confirm that a majority wishes to proceed along it.

If you think this sounds like a classic chicken and egg situation, you’d be right. The border poll will not be held until the case for reunification has been proved. But the case for reunification cannot be proved without some sort of poll. This contradiction reflects the overall intention of the Agreement to park this entire discussion.

So if a border poll can’t occur under the rules of the Agreement, then when can it happen ? The answer to that is like anything else : when political circumstances mandate it, in which case the two governments will act, signing treaties and legislating as necessary, to hold a poll.

So when does that happen ? This is a matter of opinion, but we can look at the conventions that already exist. A referendum on independence was held in Scotland a few years ago because the SNP sought, and won, a mandate to hold one, which the UK government could not ignore. The UK’s referendum on leaving the EU occurred because the Prime Minister at the time felt it necessary to promise one to win the 2015 election; having won that election he could not ignore his promise.

I believe a similar convention must apply in Northern Ireland. If, or when, parties which either seek Irish reunification, or seek a referendum to test support for Irish reunification, win 50%+1 of the votes in any election, then it will be politically impossible to block a border poll from being held even if the Secretary of State persists in the belief that it is not likely to pass.

So where do we stand on the 50%+1 possibility ?

That’s easy enough to answer : nowhere.

Nationalism is busy shedding all of the electoral gains it has made since 1998. It’s share of the vote is at a 20-year low, at just under 40%. This is significantly down from the all-time peak nationalist vote of 45.4% last seen at the 1999 European elections.

I’m aware of the point that Unionism’s vote share has dropped like a stone since the brexit result was announced, losing around 7% almost overnight following the brexit vote. But the weakness of the union, and of political Unionism, does not automatically mean that there is strong support for reunification. This is borne out by the fact that disillusionment with unionism is not being translated into votes for nationalist parties. There is no evidence of any demand within the electorate to set up an alternative nationalist party to address the shortcomings of the existing ones.

What of the Alliance Party, the Greens and other constitutionally unaligned groups ? It’s true that a great many Alliance and Green voters aspire to a united Ireland. But what is also true is that these parties have ruled out supporting a border poll in the short or medium term in favour of focussing on repairing Northern Ireland’s economy and political institutions, redoubling efforts on rebuilding community relations, and proposing solutions for the real problems we are facing in healthcare, education and infrastructure. The position of the centre ground on border polling has now been reconfirmed in three successive elections.

Turning to the state of play in southern Irish politics, the election coming next week holds out the prospect of Sinn Féin being in government for the first time since 1922. Commentary on the many real, imagined and unimagined complexities of this is beyond the scope of this article. But could a Sinn Féin Tánaiste kickstart reunification from the southern end ?

In the first instance, there is no mechanism for the Irish government to trigger a border poll under the terms of the Agreement. But an Irish government could begin planning for the event of reunification, a key Sinn Féin demand in recent years.

However, I think any reunification planning exercise would, in practice, end up looking like the UK Government’s plans for a hard brexit. Nobody took those planning exercises seriously for two reasons – firstly, the government had no serious vision for what the UK would look like under a hard brexit; and secondly, because nobody, brexiteers included, believed in their gut that a hard brexit was a realistic outcome. So they went through the motions, knowing that all the plans would be shelved.

As part of any debate within government of reunification, you have the strong likelihood of the Department of Finance, which has always (except once) been held by the majority coalition partner, producing reports which show that reunification will cause severe economic stresses in Ireland necessitating spending cuts and tax increases. Those reports will be discussed in public at any putative Citizen’s Assembly looking into this matter and will be used to divide Sinn Féin’s activist base by undermining its top manifesto commitment.

I see no immediate pathway to Irish reunification that is grounded in political reality. I think the biggest problem is that those who seek Irish reunification have no strategy. Organising rallies of the faithful (with a few carefully selected token non-nationalists invited along) in the Waterfront Hall, in hotels along the border, or in assorted meeting rooms around Westminster isn’t going to do it. “Hail Mary pass” strategies, borrowing from the Brexit model of calling the poll and then winging the outcome, are going to scare people away.

For reunification to happen, nationalist parties will need to look at building a broader coalition. I have seen nothing in the past two or three years to suggest that Ireland’s largest political party has any interest in doing this, much preferring to stand with its traditional base over contentious issues. I am not here to relitigate debates over matters such as, for example, RIC commemorations; but I can tell you that I will never vote for any party which says it wishes to build a new state for everyone but appears to refuse to acknowledge that every section of opinion on the past deserves a place in it.

So if no reunification, then what ? I think the truth is that what happens will be a little boring. Northern Ireland will slowly, by osmosis, move away from the UK and towards Ireland and Europe as businesses and populations follow the path of least resistance. Over time, the Irish government and the EU will, in the background, influence more and more of the decisions taken here in line with its national interest, with the British government quietly rubber-stamping where it needs to.

We will, I suspect, end up settling into a comfortable groove, looking something like a joint protectorate of Ireland and the UK – technically and officially part of one, practically part of the other, always in dispute but with most people getting on with their day to day lives as usual.

Imagine living in a place where people are broadly content, if not enthusiastic, about their lot. If the question comes up about whether we should join a united Ireland the obvious retort will be – why bother ?

Photo by Tumisu is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA