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

Unionism and the Conservative Brexit deal rebellion

jack_sheldon.1image_normalThis week, MPs voted in favour of renegotiating the parts of the Withdrawal Agreement that relate to the ‘backstop’. The backstop and the land border between the UK and Ireland has been one of the most divisive Brexit issues for the Conservatives. Jack Sheldon and Michael Kenny discuss what this tells us about the party’s attitude to the Union.

‘Something ghastly called UK(NI) has been created. Northern Ireland will be under a different regime. That is a breach of the Act of Union 1800’. Owen Paterson MP

I am concerned about the prospects of a Northern Ireland that risks being increasingly decoupled from the United Kingdom, and about how that could undermine the Union that is at the heart of the United Kingdom’. Justine Greening MP

‘I would really like to support the deal of this Prime Minister and this Government, but the issue for me is the backstop. I served in Northern Ireland and I lost good colleagues to protect the Union. I will not vote for anything that does not protect the Union’. Sir Mike Penning MP

Concerns about the implications of the Irish backstop for the integrity of the domestic Union contributed significantly to the scale of the 118-strong backbench rebellion that led to Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement being defeated on 15 January, by the extraordinary margin of 432 to 202. Following a debate and vote on 29 January, the Prime Minister has now committed to seek legally binding changes to the backstop, in the hope that this might win over at least some of the rebels before the next vote.

What do the arguments that have been made about the backstop tell us about the nature of the ‘unionism’ that prevails in the contemporary Conservative Party? This is a pertinent question, given that the sincerity of professed support for the Union from Conservatives has regularly been called into question by academic and media commentators in recent years, with increasing numbers of critics suggesting that leading figures from the Tory Party have harvested ‘English nationalist’ sentiments and are willing to put the future of the Union at risk. Continue reading

Challenges to good government in Northern Ireland: charting a future course

alan_rialto2-1The first part of this blog looked at Northern Ireland’s troubled experience with government without ministers for the last year and a half; while the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry offered colourful but not uplifting revelations about the way it had been conducted under devolution; and Westminster’s conduct of its responsibilities was widely questioned. Alan Whysall asks what lies behind these problems?

A lack of interest in good government and public policy has long been part of the Northern Ireland political culture. The dialogue in politics and the media has always readily reverted to the traditional issues – and more now that the parties are not constrained by the need to work together.

Partly, this illustrates the seriousness of the political and community divide that politics must seek to bridge. But the reflection of that divide in the structure of politics in Northern Ireland also means that no alternative government is on offer during elections, so misconduct in government is harder for the electorate to sanction. If the great priority of most electors is to support their community’s champion against the other side, the detail of the champion’s conduct in government gets lost. Continue reading

Challenges to good government in Northern Ireland: all shapes and sizes of icebergs

alan_rialto2-1With no ministers in charge since March 2017, public administration in Northern Ireland faces serious challenges. Civil servants have been attempting to keep things running, but on collapsing legal foundations. A public Inquiry has raised issues about competence, commitment and propriety in the old devolved government. There is little energy behind restoration of devolved government, and little lead from London. The lack of attention to good government, suggests Alan Whysall, is a serious weakness in Northern Ireland political culture that must be tackled. The first part of this blog outlines the current challenges; the second, what might be done about them.

There is a side of Northern Ireland that revels in its disasters. A whole quarter of Belfast is after all named after the Titanic, rather than the many Harland and Wolff ships that did not sink. So there was resentment when the Guinness Book of Records recently denied Northern Ireland’s claim to have gone for longer than anyone else without a government (on grounds of Westminster’s ultimate ability to intervene).

There has been no government at all as respects devolved matters since January 2017. The position is worse than in most states ‘without government’, including Guinness’ reigning champion Belgium, which have had ministers exercising caretaker functions. Northern Ireland has a legal void.

The larger political stakes around the collapse of devolution and profound disagreement over Brexit have been outlined in earlier pieces. They have continued to worsen. The focus of this blog is issues of governance – which however bear closely on future prospects of sustaining political progress. Continue reading

Beating the boundaries? The stalled debate on how to draw up the UK’s parliamentary constituencies

A major 2011 shake-up of the rules governing how the UK’s parliamentary constituencies are drawn has proved controversial. While the new rules deal with the long-standing issue of substantial inequalities in constituency electorates, they also threaten frequent major disruption of the country’s constituency map. But attempts to square the circle by revising the 2011 legislation seem stalled, and the new rules themselves have yet to result in new constituencies. Charles Pattie, Ron Johnston and David Rossiter offer their view of where we are, and where we should go from here.

Largely unnoticed outside Westminster, an important debate has been going on over how to redraw the UK’s constituency map. The current rules for doing so are enshrined in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 (the Constituencies Act). But since the start of this year, two major proposals have been made to revise aspects of the Act. In February, the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) published a report setting out its proposals (and in late May, the government responded). And a private member’s bill sponsored by Labour MP Afzal Khan, containing a different set of recommended changes is still making its way through parliament. Continue reading

The politics of polling: the report of the Committee on Polling and Digital Media

IMG_3616On 17 April, the House of Lords’ ad hoc Committee on Political Polling and Digital Media published a report, following its inquiry into the effects of political polling and digital media on politics. At an event organised by The Constitution Unit, Lord Lipsey, who chaired the Committee, discussed the report with a panel that consisted of Baroness Jay of Paddington, a Labour peer who served on the Committee; Will Jennings, of the University of Southampton; and Martin Boon, a professional pollster. Dave Busfield-Birch offers a summary of their comments.

Following an inquiry that took evidence from a variety of experts, industry professionals, and ministers, the Committee on Political Polling and Digital Media published its report on the subject on 17 April. The Constitution Unit organised an event to publicise the release of the report, which consisted of a panel discussion (summarised below) and a lively and interesting Q&A session. Committee Room 2 in the Palace of Westminster was full when Jennifer Hudson, Senior Lecturer in Political Behaviour at the UCL Constitution Unit, introduced the panel, on which she served as Chair. Lord Lipsey and Baroness Jay of Paddington introduced the report on behalf of the Committee. They were then followed by Will Jennings, Professor of Political Science at the University of Southampton, and Martin Boon, who provided the perspective of a professional pollster.

Lord Lipsey

As chair of the Committee, Lord Lipsey noted that he had enjoyed working on the inquiry that produced it, although he did acknowledge that the report was ‘slightly unusual’ in one key respect. Normally, parliamentary inquiries examine government policy, and the recommendations in their reports are aimed at influencing it. This report, however, had focused its attention on the workings of the polling and digital media industries and it is they who are the targets of most of its recommendations. One recommendation that was intended to influence government policy called for the Electoral Commission to have a wider statutory role in regulating and monitoring polling during election periods.

Lord Lipsey then went on to offer some background to the report, saying that it had partially been prompted by the existence of three big polling ‘bloopers’ in recent British political history. In 2015, polls had widely predicted a hung parliament; instead, the Conservatives secured a parliamentary majority. At the next general election in 2017, the Conservatives experienced an unexpected result in the opposite direction: where polls had predicted an increased majority for Theresa May, the voters delivered a hung parliament and a government that now relies on DUP support for its parliamentary majority. Finally, the referendum on leaving the European Union produced a vote for Brexit that the polls had largely failed to predict. Lord Lipsey was careful, however, to point out that despite these three unexpected results, people should be careful of jumping to conclusions about the state of the polling industry. The Committee found no statistical evidence that polls are getting worse internationally. However, he did warn that the failure of polls to predict three otherwise unexpected results in succession would mean that pollsters should expect ‘not to get much sleep’ during the next general election campaign. Continue reading

The Good Friday Agreement at 20: what’s next for Northern Ireland?

Alan_Rialto2 (1)Yesterday, in the first of two blogs on the Good Friday Agreement, Alan Whysall discussed where the Agreement had gone wrong and the benefits it has brought Northern Ireland since it was signed in April 1998. In this post, Alan looks at the future of the Agreement, a document he was involved in negotiating and implementing during his time as a civil servant at the Northern Ireland Office.

As conflict with the EU mounted over the Northern Ireland issue, some pro-Brexit voices in Great Britain began to argue that the Good Friday Agreement (‘the Agreement’) had ‘run its course’. They proposed no alternatives, however, for a position that broke a 20 year consensus in mainstream British politics.

Few in Northern Ireland, beyond established ultras, have gone so far. But some, predominantly unionists, argue in the short term for direct rule; some for changes to the mechanisms of the Agreement. There is also increasing talk of a border poll opening the way to a united Ireland.

Direct rule

Some see direct rule from Westminster as a good government safety net that Northern Ireland can fall back on, as in the past. From one perspective, it is remarkable that has not happened. Extraordinarily, no one has been in charge of government for over a year, as though having government is discretionary. The civil service carries out the administration on the basis of established policy, in a legal quagmire.

Nonetheless the British government has resisted the temptation to reinstate full-blown direct rule. This is understandable, as its own role would be seriously contested, given its dependence on the DUP for a Commons majority; so would the role the Agreement foresees for the Irish government. Most damagingly, it might be seen as the end of efforts to revive the institutions, unleash further negativity and probably drive the best people from politics. Direct rule, once turned on, is hard to turn off.

The present situation cannot endure indefinitely. At some point, much more government will have to be done. Continue reading