Seanán Ó Coistín argues that far from offering a smooth exit from the UK the pre-conditions for a referendum in Belfast Agreement make it very tough to take NI into political union with the south.
And, by the way, the name of the agreement is the Belfast Agreement. It is silly for nationalists to split hairs about the name of the agreement, considering it was signed in the second-largest city in Ireland. Recently, someone upbraided me on Twitter for calling it the Belfast Agreement by writing, “All pro New Irelanders & Nationalists refer to it as the GFA, including the Irish government. Anyone proclaiming to want a New Ireland would never use a Unionist term.”
Well, I am a nationalist and I call it the Belfast Agreement.
Any other name is a nickname. One could call it the Stormont Agreement, the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 peace agreement, etc., but the official title of the agreement signed in Belfast in April 1998 is the Belfast Agreement.
So, why is the Belfast Agreement a pig in a poke for nationalists? Many people place huge faith in the agreement as the way to bring about Irish unity. They seem to rely more on the spirit of the agreement rather than the letter of the agreement. The spirit of the agreement can be summarised as being for peace, the principle of consent, power-sharing, equality, parity of esteem, and more cooperation north and south and between Ireland and the UK. Those sentiments are positive and praise-worthy. The other reason that many praise the agreement for is that it supposedly lays out a way to bring about Irish unity.
The reality is that it does not. It is less of a plan and more of a wish and a hope. All one needs to do is look at the letter of the agreement to see that there is no definite plan to achieve Irish unity. There is a very wishy-washy statement.
Schedule 1, Polls for the Purpose of Section 1, states that the UK Secretary of State may order a poll for Irish unity 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 and that he shall not make an order earlier than seven years after the holding of a previous poll.
That is the plan! That is all nationalists have to go on. That is what nationalists are placing all their hope on. Did you notice the use of the words “may” and “shall”? “May” means there is a choice to do something or not. “Shall” is imperative.
So, the UK government has a choice to order a border poll, but it can decide not to, and it shall not order another poll until at least seven years have gone by, but it could decide to wait for however long it wants before ordering another poll.
The problem with this supposed plan is that it removes all power of agency of Irish people to determine their future. All hopes for a border poll are dependent on a British minister taking a decision. All Irish nationalists can do is beg England. “Please England. Please. All we want is one little referendum. All we need is one little poll, and we will be happy. Please, please, please.”
That is not power or sovereignty. It is enfeeblement. The Belfast Agreement does not stipulate how a British government will decide if the time is right to hold a poll. No nationalist should have ever signed the Belfast Agreement without that being clear and nailed down and with a specific time arranged for it.
One suggestion for triggering a poll could have been that a petition of 500,000 NI voters be presented to the UK government, who would then be legally bound to hold a referendum shortly after. In 2019, there were 1,293,971 people in the north registered to vote. 790,523 people in the north voted in the Brexit referendum. It is certain that the number of voters would increase in a border poll.
Therefore, half a million voters in a population of 1.8 million people would represent a sufficient share of the north’s population. Under the Belfast Agreement, the UK Secretary of State holds all the power and discretion about ordering a border poll. A vindictive UK government could decide to never hold a poll. Nationalists cannot complain, as they have agreed that that is how any border poll would be held.
With such freedom about ordering a poll, a Secretary of State can choose do what they like. It smacks of the story of one of the directors of Anglo-Irish Bank who, when asked where did he get figures from, he said he picked them out of his arse. A British minister could also pick voter intention figures out of his or her arse and decide that that is sufficient proof for ordering a poll or not.
Nationalists can shout and jump up and down and claim that there is a growing movement towards Irish unity, but if the UK government decide otherwise, then there is nothing that nationalists can do about it.
Alex Kane wrote about this weakness, and he is right. Nationalists can do nothing about a border poll. It is completely in the hands of a British minister. The other problem with the supposed plan is that it does not lay out when the UK would withdraw from Ireland and transfer Northern Ireland to the Irish state.
That too should have been nailed down. If a border poll is won by the unity side, will the UK withdraw a month later, a year later, or a few years later? None of that is mentioned. That is not a plan for unity. It is a pig in a poke.
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.