Northern Ireland and a border poll: hard truths

Alan_Rialto2 (1)The Brexit issue continues to fuel speculation about the prospects of Irish unity following a border poll. Here Alan Whysall, Senior Honorary Research Associate at the Constitution Unit, author of the Unit’s paper on the subject published in March, and a member of the working group bringing in colleagues from Belfast and Dublin that will look further at the implications of a poll, warns that there are serious dangers looming here for both parts of Ireland – as well as the British government and the wider UK.

The potential breakup of the UK is now spoken about more often than it has perhaps been since the 1920s, fed by the heated politics of Brexit and by evolutions in opinion revealed in polling in Northern Ireland (and Scotland). Some polling in England suggests a willingness to contemplate this, especially if it is the price of Brexit. The subject is sometimes raised rather matter-of-factly in discussion in Great Britain, on an apparent assumption that quick and clean breaks are possible. 

In the case of Ireland, at least, this is not so. There are a number of hard realities meaning that any process of Irish unity is likely to be drawn out, and at all stages capable of tipping over into heightened tensions, instability and conflict. And hence a serious preoccupation for the UK, as well as for Ireland. The situation requires handling with extreme care and sensitivity, and not least from London. But its conduct in the last few weeks has all tended to exacerbate the situation.

This blog sets out some of the realities and pitfalls – and why the latter are at present becoming more likely and more serious.

Northern Ireland has a right to leave the UK on the basis of the majority vote

Northern Ireland differs from other parts of the UK in that there is a principle already established in political agreements and in international law that it should leave the UK and become part of a United Ireland in certain circumstances – if a majority of its inhabitants voting in a poll, and the majority also in the rest of Ireland, is in favour. This is a cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement, and embodied also the parallel Treaty between the UK and Ireland.

And there is a mechanism to bring the principle to life: the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, with parliamentary approval, must call a referendum (usually called in Northern Ireland a ‘border poll’) at any time it seems likely that a majority would favour Irish unity. 

A majority for a United Ireland may be developing

The prospect until recently seemed remote. A few years ago even among the Catholic, traditionally nationalist, population of Northern Ireland, there appeared to be little enthusiasm for immediate constitutional change.

Since the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive in 2016, the Brexit vote and the subsequent, increasingly polarised, discussion about a hard border, opinion has substantially changed. Among nationalists it has hardened significantly. Traditional unionist opinion has hardened in various respects too.

But there are also now signs of a growing middle ground in Northern Ireland politics, reflected in election results this year. And signs also in surveys of the old clear-cut patterns of identity becoming less distinct. To judge by public comment, some in the centre now have less firm views about the border, and many of them appear unimpressed with what has been happening in London.

These changing patterns of opinion are accompanied by changes in polling on a united Ireland. A poll some months ago foresaw a majority in the event of a hard Brexit. And then last month, a poll suggested there was actually now a plurality – albeit slender and within the margin of error – in favour of a United Ireland. Other surveys, however, still show a majority for the Union.

Some nationalists, like the former deputy first Minister Seamus Mallon, are urging caution, and the Taoiseach has spoken of the potentially destabilising consequences of a poll around Brexit. Others, however, seek an early poll, especially following a Brexit that results in a hardened border – sensing that will improve their chances, something feared also by some London observersSome unionists in Northern Ireland detect a change in the political landscape to which they must respond, but others appear unmoved.

Given the Agreement, the only way to avoid a border poll is to avoid creating changes in opinion that bring a majority for unity

A border poll is probably some time away, and not inevitable. Surveys may continue to differ. Neither government wants an early poll. Both might find ways to temporise. But even the governments’ opposition will not necessarily suffice to avoid a poll. If there is a succession of opinion polls showing a clear, even if slender, majority in favour of a United Ireland, there is no simply deciding not have a poll. 

The principle of unity by consent is the foundation of the Good Friday Agreement. Legally, the government is obliged to behave honestly, and ultimately subject to judicial review if it clearly does not. Politically, if it or parliament are seen to ignore majorities for unity, its commitment to the Agreement in the eyes of nationalists is completely undermined; and with it the foundations of the peace process.

An early poll would create dangerous instability

A poll now would be a leap into the void – likely to lead not to early unity but to chaos, because no one has worked out either the route to a United Ireland, or a plan for what that would look like. Neither is in the Agreement. It offers only the principle of consent and the trigger for the process of unity, through the northern border poll. Beyond that, it offers no route map, and only a few stray suggestions of the principles that would inform the structure of a unified state. 

Without a process, a vote for unity would raise expectations and heightened tensions with no political mechanism in place for channelling them. The results could be profoundly destabilising.

In the context of a poll there would be a greater need still for constructive politics in Northern Ireland

There is a particular requirement to work out the process, because of fundamental differences of approach within the Agreement. On the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, the Agreement is clear that the decision is binary, decided by 50% plus one. This formulation is framed by history and politics, and it is hard to think of it being reversed. But otherwise the Agreement is full of requirements for decision-making by consensus: it is fundamental to the way the devolved institutions operate. 

And indeed the rules established for the negotiating process by which the Agreement itself was concluded themselves required consensus – majority support in both the unionist and nationalist tradition in Northern Ireland. That reflected the general recognition that has underpinned Northern Ireland policy since the 1970s, that a system of government there can only be viable if it attracts cross community support. That principle cannot be wished away in devising a United Ireland. New arrangements not backed by significant consensus would risk serious instability from the start. So getting to a position where a poll has to be held in circumstances that are hostile to such consensus carries grave risks.

With constructive politics there is a better chance to create an orderly path to unity in an agreed Ireland. But the last three years – and particularly the last three months – have seen the collapse of such a political environment.

And there is a need for the governments to work together to promote agreement

The motor of the peace process has always been the UK and Irish governments, working to the same agenda, sometimes with US support. It is they who have introduced new ideas, brokered the compromises, and orchestrated international goodwill (albeit often building on the work of groups and individuals outside). Each sought to have good relations, and built up a degree of trust, with all the main political traditions in Northern Ireland.

If a border poll were decided on, they would need to lead the development of the negotiating structures, and then seek to point the participants to achievable, and practically workable, arrangements. That requires them to have a high degree of mutual confidence and understanding. For a couple of decades at least, that was the position. It is not any longer.

A poll would be followed by a prolonged tightrope walk featuring regular acrobatics 

Irish unity would necessarily take time and proceed in phases – the Constitution Unit report sketches out a possible sequence. There would first need to be a need for nationalism to work out its offer to unionism, and vice versa. That process has barely started and would require a period of years between the decision to hold a border poll and the vote itself.

And then the process must address the further reality that Northern Ireland (political) unionists are unlikely to engage meaningfully with the design of arrangements for a United Ireland unless it appears to them to be inevitable. Up to that point, they will be seeking to prevent unity.

So the negotiation of the terms of a United Ireland will not happen in advance of a border poll. After that point, there might be a – necessarily lengthy – process engaging all the main political players, with an objective of reaching consensus on arrangements for a United Ireland. 

That objective cannot, however, amount to an absolute unionist veto over Irish unity. So there probably has to be some minimum default arrangement for unity in the event that there is no agreement – probably agreed between the governments.

A process of this sort requires the most careful preparation, strong but sensitive leadership, and constructive voices to the fore. And it requires the two governments to work in harmony.

Government and politics alone will not however bring us through

The governments and the Northern Ireland political class cannot achieve the necessary transformation in politics by themselves. Partly because the border poll era would require an entirely different sort of politics, in which parties appeal beyond the community barriers: this would be a difficult transformation for most of them. And also because experience is that a political settlement will concentrate on political institutions. The wider social fractures that underpin conflict are too difficult and too intractable for a political negotiation to resolve.

The process needs a substantial contribution from civic society. And it needs to start now, while the politics is raw, the governments at loggerheads and the community polarising fast. Our own working group is a small contribution to one aspect of the picture. But it is tightly focused: it will look at processes – how a United Ireland might come about. It will not advocate for or against a poll, or Irish unity. And it will not make suggestions about what a United Ireland might look like. Or indeed what the unionist alternative, designed to encourage nationalists to remain in the UK might be. Or, potentially, other compromise approaches to constitutional, government and community relations questions.

There is a vast amount of work to be done here. Civil society in Northern Ireland and beyond needs to find ways of organising to meet the challenge.

But at present we are heading for disaster

We need sober reflection: as Gerry Adams has said, having a referendum without a plan is stupid. Many others need to join the debate to help develop the plans. But we also need to ensure the politics does not force us onto the tightrope before we are properly prepared; a message that needs particularly to be understood in London, where decisions on Brexit have greatly contributed to the fracture in Northern Ireland politics, and with Dublin, acutely so in recent weeks. 

Last week’s Brexit plans, the product of negotiation with only one party in Northern Ireland and appropriating the Northern Ireland devolved structures in a way clearly out of keeping with the Good Friday Agreement approach, do not suggest much understanding in London of the Northern Ireland settlement, or concern to uphold it. 

In the last few days we have seen the attribution in London of blame to Dublin that has been echoed in Belfast; talk of exerting ‘leverage’ over Dublin through, for example, shortages of medicines, or alternatively offering money to acquiesce in the new border proposals; the Northern Ireland Secretary feeling the need to rebut a Downing Street briefing implying scrapping security cooperation between Britain and Ireland (something the UK has consistently sought to develop over the last 40 years). 

In all of this, what remains of the constructive relations built up throughout the peace process is being destroyed. If we do not return to a constructive political environment soon, there are serious risks to all that has been achieved in Ireland in recent decades. The relative peace and order we have seen over that period is not guaranteed, as history earlier this century and before makes clear. 

A majority for a border poll may be an early consequence of what is happening now, potentially leading to serious instability – whether Irish unity ends up being accepted or rejected.

This blog is drawn in part from comments by the author at an event held by the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast, and in a piece on the Queen’s Policy Engagement website.

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About the author

Alan Whysall is a former civil servant and now an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Unit, specialising on Northern Ireland’s politics. He is a member of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland.