Not a lot of extra comment is needed. By these measurements the narrowing margins should concentrate minds. Most concentration is inevitably focused on Scotland where Westminster has the constitutional veto absent in relation to Northern Ireland , where the Northern Ireland Secretary has the discretion to call a referendum which the Republic is obliged to follow concurrently. Here the interim report by academics in London, Belfast and Dublin on preparing for twin Irish referendums is well worth studying. A final report is expected in the Spring.
What criteria would the Secretary of State adopt for calling a border poll? His discretion is near absolute it seems. How many polls over what period of time? What role for the Assembly up for election next year? Public opinion polls on the proposition of unification alone are controversial. Should a border poll be called if the public declare they have more urgent priorities? We should be told how these assessments are to be made.
The key question for holding Irish referendums on unification is this: no borders everywhere would be great; but if the aim is reconciliation, what are its prospects on margins as close as these? No government can tell us what to do; it’s up to the good sense of the people.
Sunday Times extracts…
The UK is facing a constitutional crisis that will strain the Union as new polls reveal a majority of voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland want referendums on the break-up of Britain.
A four-country survey we commissioned, based on separate polls in Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales, also found that the sense of British identity that once bound the country together is disintegrating.
And in another significant move, the Scottish National Party (SNP) announced that it is prepared to call a wildcat referendum of its own if Boris Johnson refuses to grant one himself — a move that puts the two governments on a constitutional collision course.
In Northern Ireland, a majority — 51 per cent to 44 per cent — want a referendum about the border within the next five years. And unionists hold only a slender lead over those who want a united Ireland now — 47 per cent to 42 per cent — but another 11% are undecided, enough to threaten the future of the UK.
The LucidTalk survey in Northern Ireland found that among those aged under 45, supporters of Irish reunification outnumber those who want to stay in the UK by 47 per cent to 46 per cent…
The polls show that voters in all four corners of the land expect Scotland to become independent within the next 10 years — by margins far in excess of two to one in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Northern Irish voters also think there will be a united Ireland within 10 years by a margin of 48 per cent to 44 per cent.
The Scottish poll, conducted by Panelbase, found that the SNP is on course for a huge landslide in the Scottish parliament elections due in May — likely to be the trigger for a new political crisis.
A forecast by Sir John Curtice, Britain’s leading election expert, shows the nationalists picking up seven seats more than in 2016, which first minister Nicola Sturgeon will insist is a mandate for a new independence vote.
Senior government sources say Johnson will flatly refuse that demand and revealed that the UK government has little intention of offering early concessions on further devolution but will instead play hardball with Holyrood.
In a shift of policy, the SNP bowed to pressure within the independence movement for a so-called “plan B” yesterday. Sturgeon will press on with a referendum regardless, effectively daring the prime minister to challenge the will of the Scottish people in court.
In London, the Union Policy Implementation Committee has drawn up a five-step programme: to fight the Scottish elections hard rather than offer up constitutional concessions in advance; simultaneously to launch a campaign to persaude Scots of the benefits of the Union; thirdly to oppose a referendum and hope that causes the SNP to fight amongst themselves over tactics; fourth to only later consider further devolution and only then as part of wider reforms throughout the UK; finally if there is a referendum one day to control the timing and terms of the vote. “I don’t think there is any member of the cabinet who doesn’t realise how important this is,” a minister said.
If political pressure did ultimately lead to a referendum, London still has some cards. Alex Salmond was taken aback by how accommodating David Cameron proved when agreeing the terms of the Edinburgh Agreement on the 2014 referendum, letting 16-year-olds vote and agreeing to hold it around the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn in the war of Scottish independence.
If there is a next time, Johnson and Gove would be less accommodating. The cabinet office minister privately quotes an observation by George Galloway that “A captain of the Scotland football team who doesn’t live in Scotland wouldn’t be able to vote in any future referendum.” Ministers would explore giving the vote to Scottish born adults living elsewhere in the UK.
Another idea would be to put a third option – perhaps Brown’s devo-max idea – on the ballot paper. The three option referendum is not popular. 71 per cent of Scottish voters in today’s poll want a straight yes-no choice. However, it does suggest that the third option would leech support from the SNP. While only 18 per cent would back devo-max, with the status quo winning 35 per cent, taken together that makes 53 per cent, overtaking the 47 per cent who would back independence in this scenario.
All of which means that Scottish independence looks possible but is not yet inevitable.
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