Holding a border poll in Northern Ireland: when does it need to happen and what questions need to be answered?

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The prospect of a poll in Northern Ireland about Irish unification, provided for by the Good Friday Agreement and often termed a ‘border poll’, is now widely discussed. But the provisions and wider implications of the law and the Agreement are little explored. The Constitution Unit is considering a project to examine this, and Alan Whysall here gives an overview of the key questions.

Support for a united Ireland appears to be rising. There is little to suggest a majority for unity now, but in the context of Brexit provoking serious strains it might arise. This blog is mainly about process. But the real world risks are high. An early poll, particularly if it takes place in a political atmosphere that is strained following a hard Brexit, could seriously destabilise both parts of Ireland, and put at risk the political gains of recent decades.

Current outlook on border polls

Northern Ireland Unionists have largely ignored or dismissed the prospect of a poll. But the former First Minister Peter Robinson last year urged unionism to prepare.

Nationalists, while looking forward to a poll, have often been vague as to when this might happen. Sinn Féin now appears to favour one immediately after a no deal Brexit. The SDLP propose there should first be a forum to establish the shape of a united Ireland.

The Irish government has been hesitant. The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has suggested that raising the prospect now is disruptive and destructive, and has in the past questioned the wisdom of Irish unity founded on a 50% plus one vote in Northern Ireland.

The UK government has consistently rejected ideas of any early poll. But during recent debate on a no deal Brexit, leaks have emerged of its apparent fears that such an outcome would trigger a poll, dismissed by unionists as ‘Project Fear’.

Recent surveys on Northern Ireland appear to show a marked trend towards a united Ireland. None yet suggests an overall majority, but polling last September suggested 52% of people there would vote in favour in the event of Brexit. However different surveys produce sharply different results and the accuracy of some polling methodologies is questioned. Indeed opinion polling in Northern Ireland has for long thrown up particular problems. Continue reading

Will Brexit lead to the break up of the UK?

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The differing referendum results in the UK’s component parts have led to immediate speculation about a second independence referendum in Scotland and a border poll in Northern Ireland. Robert Hazell assesses the situation.

Scotland (by 62–38) and Northern Ireland (by 56–44) voted to remain in the EU, but were outvoted by England and Wales. This has led to immediate speculation that there might be a second independence referendum in Scotland, and a border poll in Northern Ireland to seek re-unification with the south. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said that a second independence referendum is ‘highly likely’, and Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has (not for the first time) called for a border poll. How likely is it that a referendum to leave the UK might be held in Scotland, or Northern Ireland; and how likely is it that such a referendum would be carried?

In both countries the two questions are closely connected. Having lost the 2014 independence referendum, Nicola Sturgeon is not going to call for another one unless she is confident that next time it can be won. She is likely to wait until the polls consistently show support of 60 per cent or more for several months. Since September 2014 the polls have suggested that Scotland is divided more or less 50–50, when Scots are asked if they would support independence now. It might be expected that Brexit would give a boost to support for independence, but our Brexit devolution seminar on 19 May suggested several reasons why that might not be the case.

Continue reading