Complacent Assumptions vs Political Reality: a border poll is not inevitable…

Following the vote for Brexit in 2016, a persistent media drumbeat has highlighted the enhanced likelihood of a future border poll – a referendum for a United Ireland. Many Irish nationalists, noting the changing demographics and loss of Unionism’s political majority, have already priced it in. But is this assumption complacent, and if it does happen what are the consequences?

The key to unlocking a border poll is the view of the people who live in Northern Ireland (the Republic are already persuaded – a 2019 poll indicated 65% would vote yes). The legislation which brings this voice to life is the Good Friday Agreement, which states the Secretary of State should call a referendum “if it appears likely that a majority of voters would express a wish to form a United Ireland.” To date most NI polls have indicated a small majority against a border poll, which has led the UK Government to declare the conditions for a vote are “not remotely satisfied.”

In all probability the UK will only call a border poll if there is majority support in the Assembly. In 2017 the electorate installed 40 Unionist seats, 39 Nationalists, and 11 others. Of the main parties only Sinn Fein support an immediate border poll. The SDLP, with 12 seats, have adopted it as a medium-term policy, allowing time to bring Unionists into the conversation. The Alliance, with 8 seats, are unpersuaded as they want to focus on making NI work. The 40 Unionists would naturally vote against. In other words, if there was a vote for a Border Poll tomorrow it would be defeated by 62 votes to 28 (SF/PBP). The UK Government’s current assessment appears to be justified.

But could this position be vulnerable to sudden change?

Much has been made of changing demographics. Using religion as a (albeit imperfect) proxy for voting intentions Unionism faces long term decline. In 1920 over 60% of births were Protestant; in 2020 this has fallen to less than 30%.

While this is a sobering statistic for Unionists it is worth noting that the biggest beneficiary of this change is not Catholic, who record less than 45% of recent births, but no religion or not stated. This new secular constituency will not vote on a tribal basis but on future opportunities. In recent years it is no surprise that progressive parties, such as Alliance and Green, have been most successful in growing their vote.

In addition, while 9 out of 10 protestants traditionally vote to remain in the UK, Catholic voting intentions are more diverse. A 2017 poll suggested that 37% would still vote to stay in the UK. Changing demographics do not make a United Ireland inevitable.

There are two main scenarios that will unlock the politics for a border poll (and I am assuming that a positive vote in the Assembly will satisfy the conditions of the GFA, and legally require the SoS to call a referendum).

  1. At a future Assembly election there is a substantial increase in the nationalist vote which increases their seats from 39 to 46 or greater. This is combined with a change in SDLP policy to request an immediate border poll.
  2. Both the Alliance and SDLP are persuaded that an immediate referendum is in the best interests of Northern Ireland and join with Sinn Fein to vote it through.

The nationalist vote, which marshalled its base successfully at the last Assembly, already had a substantial boost between the 2016 and 2017 elections. This fact, combined with the increasingly diverse nature of our demographics and SDLP’s current policy position, does not make option 1 appear likely for the foreseeable future. At the current point in time option 2 would also mark a significant step change in policy (for Alliance in particular). There is no indication that either party is considering this type of change, so option 2 also seems to have limited prospects in the short to medium term.

But Northern Ireland, and the wider social, economic and cultural environment that it operates in, is changing fast and this debate will not go away.

To find a resolution the issue needs to be taken beyond party politics. The leader(s) who can create a broad-based coalition of interests – a wider social and political movement – and ally this with a compelling and inclusive vision that benefits all of our people, will be the leader(s) who shapes the destiny of this region. This vision could either be UK based – focusing perhaps on advantages such as the NHS and the strong financial and cultural benefits; or it could be a vision for a New Ireland, whose potential benefits include re-entry into the EU and the ability of local parties to genuinely shape our social and economic futures as coalition partners within a sovereign government.

Another alternative is Northern Ireland simply gets shaped by external events. What if post-Brexit arrangements, combined with economic damage following Coronavirus, plunge the region into a great depression? In this scenario perhaps re-entry into the EU and a share of the Republic’s international investment is seen as a way out. Or what if Scotland, which already has the backing of its Parliament, secures a new referendum and becomes independent? And if a new wave of progressive voters start to demand a similar choice would SDLP and Alliance policy change?

In my next post I will assume that a border poll has been secured following the next Assembly elections, and I will identify four potential outcomes than an early referendum could produce.

The United Ireland Referendum of 2023.

The year is 2023. Northern Ireland is in deep economic recession following Brexit and Coronavirus. The UK Government has finally allowed Scotland another referendum, and the NI Assembly has voted to give its citizens the opportunity to participate in a border poll too. So, what happens next?

{NB: it is assumed an Assembly vote will meet the legislative test in the GFA and require the SoS to call a referendum – see my last post “A border poll is not inevitable” for a wider discussion}

In a scenario where a border poll is agreed there are essentially four main outcomes. In all but one scenario I will assume the Republic votes yes, in line with current opinion polling data.

Scenario 1: Northern Ireland votes to remain in the UK.

Life appears to continue as normal and the GFA stipulation, prohibiting a new referendum for 7 years, resolves the matter in the short term. But in reality, the vote changes northern politics for good:

1a) Despite their win the border poll shocks Unionism, who agree to reform Northern Ireland and reach out to other groups as never before. The reforms go far enough to satisfy disparate traditions and social groups, the UK government pledges continuing support, and as a result momentum for a future border poll is lost. The referendum is not repeated for a generation.

1b) There is insufficient reform and lack of action from Unionists to build an inclusive society. This contrasts with nationalists who continue coalition building and debate. Northern Ireland continues to degenerate in comparison with a newly independent Scotland and the Republic of Ireland. A border poll is repeated in 2030 and this time a cross community electorate support a United Ireland.

Scenario 2: Northern Ireland narrowly votes to leave the UK and join a United Ireland.

Having agreed that 50% plus 1 is the only voting model that will carry democratic legitimacy, the UK has no option but to respect a waver thin victory for leave.

2a) There has been insufficient consensus building amongst the Unionist / Loyalist community and it leads to civil unrest with a range of potential outcomes:

Short Term Long Term
High

Impact

There is a violent insurgency which is only defeated after significant loss of life. The legacy of violence creates longer term unrest. Brutal civil war only resolved via truncated independent Ulster. Quality of life plummets. Low level violence permeates island & relations in deep freeze.
Low

Impact

The unrest has minimal support.

After a short period it is supressed, and violent groups disband.

Ongoing low-level unrest. This is contained but it destabilises the economy and society of Ireland over the longer term.

2b) There has been insufficient groundwork on what a New Ireland, along with its governance and institutions, should look like. There is sharp disagreement between maintaining a devolved NI Assembly or creating a unitary state. There is confusion over voting models, the powers of the legislature, the role of cities, and the size and shape of Local Councils (which are very different North and South).

Nobody has thought about the role of the Civil Service, including the trade-off between a smaller, integrated and more effective All-Ireland service, versus the short-term job losses and economic damage a rationalised service would create in the North. There is no consensus over the shape of the health service, policing and Courts, armed services, or support for culture and traditions.

Although all these issues are agreed over time it is a messy and inefficient process that creates sub-optimal solutions. This harms the social and economic potential of a New Ireland and diminishes outcomes for all its citizens, North and South.

Scenario 3: Northern Ireland votes yes, but the Republic votes no.

Concerned that there has been insufficient groundwork and consensus building, and anxious that the successful Republic will be dragged down by its northern neighbour, the south votes no. This causes a nationalist backlash and potentially encourages fringe groups to claim that democracy has failed, and further violence is justified.

Both North and South are destabilised for years to come and a future referendum is kicked into the long grass until insurgency is defeated. The possibility of a Sinn Fein led government in Dublin also increases.

Scenario 4: Border Poll delayed in favour of Citizen Assemblies

The NI Assembly votes for a border poll, but in an unusual degree of cross-party consensus and foresight agrees that it should be delayed for three years. Working alongside Dublin a series of Civic Forums and Citizen Assemblies are set up North and South to consider future governance models. Professional consultancy is commissioned to assesses what health, education and other services would look like in a New Ireland, or in a reformed Northern Ireland with island wide shared services.

An informed vote leads to better outcomes for all citizens and a proper debate adds credibility to the result, settling the issue one way or another for at least a generation, if not for good.

This is a hypothetical referendum, but the same scenarios could apply to a genuine border poll, whether it takes place in 2023 or at some indeterminate point in the future. Without proper planning most of the potential outcomes to a border poll would be negative, and some would inflict permanent long-term damage.

In reality now is not the time for an immediate border poll. However, it is time for genuine cross party and cross community engagement. Whatever your perspective on a United Ireland now is the time for deep rooted and informed thinking about what a referendum might actually mean.

Photo by bongkarn thanyakij is licensed under CC0