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. 

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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

The Irish government is pursuing Northern Ireland’s interests more actively than the UK government

Northern Ireland has been on the sidelines of the UK general election campaign, despite continuing political deadlock and the major unresolved questions resulting from Brexit. Brian Walker suggests that this reflects a general disengagement with Northern Ireland from the May government, which has taken the view that the North’s political issues are for their politicians to sort out. The Irish government can now be said to be pursuing Northern Ireland’s interests more actively.

Northern Ireland is accustomed to being tucked away on the sidelines of a UK general election. While it is part of the constitutional nation, it is barely part of the political nation, if that is defined by electing members of the UK government. (Scotland look out!). Its electoral cycle and political interests can fundamentally clash with those of the government at Westminster.  ‘Westminster will always put its own interests first, even if ours are about life and death’, is a familiar refrain. The snap 1974 ‘Who Governs Britain’ general election did for the first fragile power sharing Executive within weeks of its formation when voters returned a full house of MPs bent on bringing it down.  Power sharing did not return for a quarter of a century.

The collapse of the 2016 Assembly

Power sharing suddenly collapsed in the New Year under the impact of the Remain referendum result locally, which put the minority coalition partner Sinn Fein on the winning side and provided them with a test run for a bigger challenge. Devolved government remains in limbo, at least until after the snap general election on 8th June. In Ireland many nationalists rate Brexit as creating the biggest crisis since partition almost a century ago. Unionists and the British government are more circumspect.

Before the EU referendum, the Assembly had seemed to be going quite well. It had survived two terms with deadlocks but avoided collapse. Nationalists seemed broadly content with the constitutional status quo. The Sinn Féin vote had dipped and the DUP were comfortably ahead by ten out of 108 seats. A Fresh Start agreement brokered by the British and Irish governments at the end of 2015 ended a deadlock over welfare cuts that had lasted a year. It even led to behind the scenes talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin to settle a new style budget, as they campaigned for the Assembly election of 2016.

But the combination of a regional Remain majority, a bitter row over holding the DUP First Minster Arlene Foster responsible for a botched renewables heating scheme and the fatal illness of deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness created enough combustible material for Sinn Féin to pull out of the Assembly early this year, obliging the British government to call another election. The campaign unleashed a flood of resentment at what republicans regarded as DUP majoritarian behaviour and lack of respect for Irish culture. In particular, they pointed to the failure of unionists and the British government to implement totemic equality measures like the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights provided for in the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish Language Act provided for in the St Andrew’s Agreement.

Unionists as usual saw Sinn Féin as exaggerating minor grievances to advance the republican cause but were thrown on the defensive over resisting Sinn Féin’s demand for Foster to be suspended from office. A nationalist ‘surge’ in turnout in the Assembly election that followed in March, bluntly to ‘stick it to Arlene Foster’, brought Sinn Féin within two seats of replacing her as First Minister, as the overall nationalist result overturned the unionist bloc majority for the first time. The Sinn Féin boycott won the endorsement of their voters.   Northern Ireland had turned a chapter. The Westminster election on 8 June will be another sectarian contest to gain advantage in the existential question of Irish unity, ahead of the interparty talks on the Assembly’s future which it is hoped will resume immediately afterwards.

The political scene – changing utterly?

There are profound doubts that the talks can succeed anytime soon. It remains a sticking point for Sinn Féin for Foster not to return to office until a public inquiry rules on her conduct in about a year’s time. Moreover, when the prospect of a hard border began to emerge, Sinn Féin quickly saw the political possibilities. A re-erected border would not only be a throwback to an unlamented past; it offers a potential new route to a united Ireland. Perhaps the time has come for Sinn Féin to abandon the frustrations of power sharing in a coalition of opposites, and build on the nationalist-dominated Remain majority to create momentum for a united Ireland within the EU, launched by a border poll, followed if necessary by another poll in seven years time as the Good Friday Agreement permits?

‘She doesn’t care’

The May government’s response to the Assembly breakdown is strikingly different from the close involvement of the Blair years, when peace through paramilitary disarmament and disbandment was the main objective. Without such a big issue to compel her attention, Theresa May has followed the Cameron precedent and has remained immune to appeals from local politicians and civil society to intervene personally. ‘Leave it to themselves to sort out’ is the mantra. This UK government displays less sensitivity to the Northern Ireland implications of key policy issues than the old days of the peace process. For instance, motivated it would seem by the Prime Minister’s frustrations over deporting Abu Qatada and a visceral dislike of European courts, the Conservative manifesto looks forward to a review of the Human Rights Act when the Brexit process  has concluded, even though the HRA is entrenched in the Good Friday Agreement and any change is strongly opposed by Northern nationalists and her Irish government partners.

May’s former junior minister at the Home Office, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire, paid more attention to his party than his ministerial interests when he spoke out in favour of halting prosecutions of soldiers for actions long ago, giving support to a Conservative backbench campaign first sparked by what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan rather than Northern Ireland. It therefore came as no surprise to local opinion when Sinn Féin rejected him as a mediator in interparty talks to get the Assembly going again. Brokenshire has remained on the sidelines, his role largely limited to extending time limits for the fitful and so far unproductive talks without an active chair, an agreed agenda or any obvious sense of direction. His main leverage is to threaten another Assembly election in what would be Northern Ireland voters’ twelfth trip to the polls since the Westminster election of 2010. In fact creeping direct rule restored by primary legislation is the more likely option if the talks drag on much beyond the summer Orange marching season.

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Many referendums on constitutional change on the horizon for Ireland

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If Ireland’s new government can stay in power, its term looks set to be dominated by one referendum after another. Five referendums have been promised, with the possibility of even more. David Kenny discusses the issues that Irish voters are set to be consulted on over the next few years. He writes that recent experience suggests that referendum fatigue is likely: whilst high-profile issues will continue to generate significant interest, many of the proposed referendums are unlikely to be greeted with enthusiasm by the electorate.

Any change to the 1937 Constitution of Ireland (Bunreacht na hÉireann) – however minor – requires ratification by a majority of voters in a referendum. In the term of the previous government, the Irish people voted on six such referendums, on issues as diverse as the abolition of the upper house of parliament; the provision of same-sex marriage; and reduction in the pay of judges in line with other public servants.

This has not sated the desire for constitutional reform; Ireland’s new government has promised five referendums within its lifetime, with the possibly of several more besides.

In early May, after months of negotiations, a deal was formed to return Fine Gael – the major party in the previous coalition government – to power as a minority government. The result of these negotiations for the support of several independent TDs (MPs) and the acquiescence of main opposition party Fianna Fáil was a detailed Programme for Government, as well as memorandums of understanding between the major parties. These are designed to avoid political conflicts that would threaten the stability of the government. Only time will tell if they will succeed; recent disagreement between Fine Gael and independent cabinet ministers over a Private Members’ Bill on abortion raised doubts as to the lifespan of the government.

If the government lasts, however, we will see many constitutional referendums. The Programme for Government pledged referendums on four discrete subjects, to be held at some point during the government’s term: the constitutional crime of Blasphemy; the ‘women’s place in the home’ clause; the Unified Patent Court; and the constitutional standing of the Ceann Comhairle (the chairperson of the lower house of parliament).

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A long time coming: the formation of Ireland’s new minority government

The formation of Ireland’s new government following February’s general election took more than two months. In this post John O’Dowd discusses the reasons for the delay, the role played by the President and the agreement that was eventually reached to allow Enda Kenny to be reappointed as Taoiseach at the head of a minority government.

Partly on account of its possible repercussions for the slow-motion Eurozone crisis and partly because of its sheer length, the formation of the most recent Irish government attracted more international attention than usual, as well as much domestic puzzlement and frustration. The process began with a general election on 26 February 2016 and ended (perhaps) with the nomination of Enda Kenny (leader of the largest party, Fine Gael) for reappointment as Taoiseach (Prime Minister) on 6 May.

A delay of more than two months in forming a government is unprecedented by Irish standards and lengthy enough internationally. The government that has emerged is also somewhat odd. A minority coalition government is not without precedent in Ireland, but it is unusual in a parliamentary system for an administration to consist of parties and groups accounting for less than 40 per cent of the members of the house to which it accounts – Dáil Éireann; of the 157 votes, 59 were for Enda Kenny’s nomination, 49 against and 49 abstained. A further peculiarity is that, as well as the government depending on a formal agreement with the main opposition party, Fianna Fáil, this support is conditional on Fine Gael obtaining sufficient support through a Programme for Government agreed with other parties or groups to enable it to govern on the basis of Fianna Fáil’s abstention. In the event, Fine Gael could not attract any other parties into a coalition, so the current government consists of Fine Gael plus nine independents.

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Ireland’s election leads to uncertainty over identity of next government

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Last month’s Irish election resulted in a hung Dáil and uncertainty about the nature and identity of the next government. Alan Whysall discusses the result and its possible implications on both sides of the border.

A general election by single transferable vote to the lower house of the Irish parliament, the Dáil, was held on 26 February. The government suffered badly. The 32nd Dáil is hung, and there may not be a successor government for some weeks.

The following table summarises seats won, and first preference votes cast:

Party Seats Vote share (first preferences)
Fine Gael 50 25.5%
Fianna Fáil 44 24.4%
Sinn Féin 23 13.9%
Labour 7 6.6%
Independent/Other 34 29.7%

The Dáil has 158 seats, so 80 are required for an overall majority. There is more detail on the election here.

The result was a profound upset for the governing Fine Gael/Labour coalition. It had come to power in 2011 when the government led by Fianna Fáil was blamed for the economic crash – which was made all the starker because it followed the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years of prosperity. This time Fine Gael’s share of the vote slumped, well beyond its expectations and most poll predictions, and that of Labour, as with junior coalition partners elsewhere, suffered even more. Fine Gael – though inspired, some say, by the UK Conservative effort last year – was generally held to have had a disastrous campaign. Its slogan of ‘Let’s keep the recovery going’ was thought to have antagonised many who did not see themselves having enjoyed any fruits of recovery, although Ireland is now one of the Eurozone’s best performing economies.

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