Are border poll criteria an excuse for procrastination ?

This morning, on the BBC’s Sunday Politics, Shadow Secretary of State Peter Kyle made some comments during a brief interview with the BBC’s Darran Marshall on the question of the criteria to call a border poll (iplayer : interview begins at approx 18:45) which seems to have generated a frisson of excitement. The salient part of the interview is reproduced below, with my emphasis.

DM : I want to talk to you about the constitutional position now. Do you think last week’s census figures bring us any closer to a border poll ?

PK: I don’t think that the issue of a border poll is impacted by either the last election results or by the latest census results, because it’s all spelt out in there in the Good Friday Agreement. The key thing is whether there is a majority for a united Ireland. And, yes, there is relationships between religious communities and also people identify as republicans and the way people vote, these are all inter-related aspects of the debate, but actually that crucial aspect of when there is a clear majority, which is what was set out in the Good Friday Agreement, that is a different thing altogether.

DM : If you’re the Secretary of State, the criteria and the calling of that BP are down to you. What is the criteria ? Spell it out for us.

PK: If the circumstances emerge as set out in the Good Friday Agreement, I, as Secretary of State, would not play games – I would call the border poll. But these are issues that when you look at the direct needs in NI right now, we have a cost of living crisis, there is a crisis in public services in NI. The longest waiting lists for treatment in the NHS. This is what we’ve got to get on with now. So constitutional issues are important but don’t pretend that it is a distraction from the real issues.

DM : Tánaiste, the nationalist parties, they want to know what they have to achieve. What are they aiming for ? Is it assembly results, is it opinion polls, what is it ?

PK : The criteria are broadly set out in the Good Friday Agreement, and when the circumstances ..

DM : (interrupting) it says that if at any time it appears likely. What does that mean ?

PK: If at any point it does appear likely we will start to do what is set out in the treaty which is organise a border poll. But actually there is more to it than that and that is about sustained majority in favour of a united Ireland [interruption]. What I’m saying is what’s set out in the Good Friday Agreement. Now listen, if I become Secretary of State, and it is very clear that those circumstances are emerging, I will set out in detail the criteria. I’m not going to be a barrier if the circumstances emerge…

DM : (interrupts) what are the circumstances ?

PK : it’s in the Good Friday Agreement.

DM : well it’s not…

PK : (interrupts) it is.

DM : (quoting) “if it appears likely at any time”. So is that election results, is it opinion polling, you said it’s sustained, does that mean it has to be repeated over a number of years, is it a vote in the assembly ?

PK : you see we’re not even in that circumstance yet, so when we move towards the point where it is those circumstances set out in the GFA start to emerge and it becomes a priority for the people in Northern Ireland, I will act.

It is unclear to me what the excitement is here. Peter Kyle has restated what is already British government policy, and what has been British government policy since 1972 – that it will call a border if it appears likely that there is a majority in favour of Irish reunification.

Despite some commentary to the contrary, Kyle did not say that he would set out the criteria as soon as he became Secretary of State. As can be seen from the transcript above, he said that he would set out the criteria in detail as soon as the “circumstances are emerging”. Darran Marshall tried in vain to pin down exactly what those “circumstances” are, but Kyle gave no quarter, and gave no indication that he had any inclination to clarify the matter.

Kyle’s interview confirms that Labour will continue the UK government’s existing policy of keeping the criteria for calling a border poll ambiguous and unspecified until the point comes where to do so is no longer sustainable. He made it clear that those circumstances are not present at this stage.

Conservative or Labour, I think it’s most likely that this policy will remain in place for the foreseeable future for a few reasons. Firstly, the UK government want to retain as much flexibility as possible to respond to changing political circumstances in the future. By publishing fixed criteria, they not only limit their political options, but open themselves up to the possibility of judicial review, pushing a key constitutional question into the courts – emphatically not the right place for it to be dealt with.

Secondly, the government will be aware that by publishing criteria, it will change the direction of the political discourse on the island of Ireland. There is a real likelihood that our politics, especially in the north, would pivot still further towards those criteria and how they can be met (or, for unionists, not met). This undermines the joint policy of the British and Irish governments to promote and sustain devolution and powersharing. I say that in full appreciation that any reference to the UK government’s policy on sustaining devolution and powersharing seems like a bad joke at the moment – nonetheless, this will be a basis for their thinking here. I’d expect, in particular, that the NIO civil service will be keen to try to steer any Secretary of State away from clarity on border polling as much as they can, particularly in the absence of clear policy positioning. In their legal submissions on recent occasions when this has come up on court proceedings, their counsel has argued the government’s position to maximise their political discretion.

Like everyone else, I do not, and cannot, know what the internal thinking of the NIO is, and what is on the minds of present and future Secretaries of State. But I do detect a certain degree of wishful thinking from the nationalist side of the house.

I can’t avoid commenting on how nationalism is approaching the issue generally. It’s as if one day they hope the Secretary of State will get up out of bed, bang his head, and issue an immediate order for a border poll. They seem to hope that things like the census, UK public opinion, a change of government in Ireland, or various other concerns will force the hand of the Secretary of State even though there is no legal or political reason for this to happen. I often see speculation that the Tories will call a snap border poll with the aim of getting rid of Northern Ireland. To listen to some nationalist commentary they seem to see the Secretary of State giving them what they want in the manner of the genie emerging from Aladdin’s lamp granting wishes.

All of this is “Hail Mary” politics. It is possible that a genie will pop out of a lamp and call a border poll, but I am convinced this is firmly in the realms of the improbable. Holding onto Northern Ireland, like Scotland, is a matter of national prestige for the UK government. They won’t break their international treaty obligations under the GFA, but they will do everything that they can up to that point to avoid a poll. The fact that NI is an expensive pain in the behind is not likely to do much to mitigate this. There are also military, in particular naval, considerations which may be a factor given the ongoing tensions with Russia. In addition, at the moment, Northern Ireland is being used as leverage against the EU in pursuit of its apparent policy to try to antagonize opinion on the continent. All of these things are, of course, fluid and subject to events.

To me, the obsession with the “criteria” and with other incidentally-relevant issues such as changing demographics in the census belie serious structural weaknesses within Irish nationalism. It seems to be unwilling to take ownership of the real need to build a firm case for Irish unity or to set out its vision, instead outsourcing the matter to a series of arms-length discussion groups (which themselves appear to be unable to progress the matter beyond organising regular show-of-strength events).

There is absolutely no question that there is a growing discussion about the possible benefits of Irish unity, including among those who do not currently vote for nationalist parties. Yet there is an unwillingness within nationalism to deal with how it can harness this support politically. I can only conclude that nationalism does not want Irish unity badly enough to take the political risks required to reform itself and secure that support. It is supremely ironic that political parties, in particular those who have elected to abstain from the UK parliament, have willingly reduced themselves to reliance on the generosity of the British government to progress Irish constitutional self determination – generosity which is unlikely to be forthcoming.

Without knowing what the border poll criteria are, it’s pretty obvious what they are likely to be : similar criteria to those that apply in Scotland. As is the case across the Irish sea,  the UK government can perfectly legally justify never holding a border poll if it so wishes. But politically, it could not avoid a referendum if nationalism could show that it had a simple overall majority in favour of a manifesto supporting Irish unity. That means winning 50% + 1 in an election, or securing 50%+1 of the votes in the Assembly to call for a border poll. This is not a legal matter, but a political one.

I’m not an Irish unity campaigner. But if I was, and I was serious, then I wouldn’t waste time procrastinating by engaging in endless speculation about what the criteria might be, placing my faith in what a future British Secretary of State might or might not do, or packing assorted celebrities into mass rallies masquerading as public debates.

Instead, I’d be seeking to drive the matter forward. I’d understand that securing a unity platform in an election would be the only sure way to force the Secretary of State’s hand. To that end, I’d be fundraising to commission detailed studies into constitutional change, looking at what all island education, health, economic policy, environment, energy and so on. I’d set out a vision on reconciliation and how future commemoration of past events would be handled. I’d be brutally honest about the costs and the benefits of unity, knowing that by doing so I’d be inviting others to produce alternatives and stimulating a real debate. I’d distil all of these proposals into a prospectus and I’d publish it. I’d then prioritize securing a mandate for that prospectus by whatever means possible. I’d make it clear that a 50% + 1 result in an election would require a referendum and I’d seek to force the British government onto open ground on that question.

I can’t figure out whether it’s laziness, procrastination or plain old fear, but it is clear that Nationalism isn’t doing any of this and has no plans to change. I think we are long past the point where they should have internalized the reality that the Secretary of State isn’t going to be generous. He’s not going to call a border poll until there is a political boot on his neck giving him no other choice. The longer nationalists stall and procrastinate, the more the UK government are going to argue that nationalist voters are not resolved to bring about Irish unity.

So please, let’s put an end to this breathless speculation about when the Secretary of State will call a border poll. If you want a border poll, stop messing about and start putting the work in to make it happen. If you’re not willing to do that, please do everyone else the benefit of being clear about it so that we can get on with solving the domestic day to day issues that are causing real and ongoing hardship within the community.

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