The Secretary of State’s power to call a border poll in Northern Ireland: why British-Irish institutional cooperation is essential

Should there be a referendum on the issue of Irish unification, the Irish government would be expected to play a central role. Etain Tannam argues that Brexit created new tensions in British–Irish relations and has highlighted the need to have firm institutional cooperation between both governments before any referendum is called. As Irish unification would alter greatly the Irish state and the Irish electorate would have to approve of unification by referendum vote, the Irish government’s role is highly significant, even though it has no formal powers in this area in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Moreover, the sensitivity of the unification issue and the need to avoid increasing the sectarian divide imply that longer term management by both governments and joint framing of the issue is required.

The Brexit referendum in 2016 almost immediately reignited the issue of Irish unification, given that a majority of the population in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, including the vast majority of cultural Catholics. The unification issue has surfaced periodically since 2016, though with the exception of Sinn Féin, Irish political parties do not wish to place it on their agendas given its sensitivity. It is clear however that combined with demographic changes in Northern Ireland and the impact of Brexit on support for Scottish independence, there is far more informal discussion of Irish unification than in previous decades. Only the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has the statutory power to call a referendum on Irish unification, if they perceive there to be evidence of majority support in Northern Ireland for unification. However, in practice, given the fundamental implications for the Irish state and given Irish governments’ role in the peace process and in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, the Irish government would be expected to play a central role.

There are many reasons why the Irish government’s role would be crucial. Unification would have complex and wide-ranging impacts on Ireland, necessitating an Irish input into the timing of a referendum on unification. Many referendums could be required to amend the Constitution, dealing with a range of issues, including federalisation of the state and of protection for unionist identity in a new state.  Continue reading

Northern Ireland: politics on the move, destination uncertain

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Three years on from the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive m prompted by the RHI scandal, a power sharing government has returned to Stormont on the back of a deal that promises a ‘new approach’. Alan Whysall analyses the new deal, how it might work in practice and what pitfalls might await the new ministerial team.

We have devolved government in Northern Ireland once more, with a new political deal, New Decade, New Approach. This is a cause for real hope, responding to the public mood, and the politics dictate it must operate for the moment. Many of the underpinnings are, however, fragile. Government and politics need to operate differently if they are to succeed in the longer term.

The last thousand days

Government in Northern Ireland has been in abeyance for three years. In early 2017, one of the two main parties, Sinn Féin, withdrew over the involvement of the other, the DUP, in a mismanaged sustainable energy scheme, the Renewable Heat Incentive. Beneath the surface were other tensions, notably around respect for Irish identity – crystallised latterly in demands from Sinn Féin and others for an Irish Language Act. Division between the parties was sharpened by Brexit, which the DUP favoured but others did not; and later by its Westminster alliance with the May government. 

While devolution operated, parties in government had moderated their language. Once it collapsed, rhetoric, and feeling in parts of the community, became hardened and polarised, reminiscent of the atmosphere before the Good Friday Agreement. The British government, under uninspiring Secretaries of State and writhing in its Brexit agonies, incurred universal mistrust. Relations between London and Dublin became tense. The prospect of Irish unity through a border poll – which the Agreement makes in principle a matter for simple majorities in both parts of Ireland – featured increasingly in Sinn Féin’s approach, and appeared from opinion polling to be growing closer. Paramilitaries on both sides saw opportunities in the political vacuum; last spring dissident Republicans, seeking to kill police officers, murdered a journalist, Lyra McKee.

There was at first remarkable equanimity over the extraordinary situation of Northern Ireland being left without government, beyond civil servants minding the shop. The British government hesitated to impose direct rule, as in the past; its dependence on the DUP would have made such a step destabilising. 

A report late last year by the new Northern Ireland think tank Pivotal shows how seriously Northern Ireland has suffered from inattention to its grave economic and social problems, under devolution and since. Continue reading

What does the election result mean for territorial representation in the House of Commons?

jack_sheldon.1We have a new parliament, a new majority government and a significant number of new MPs. As Jack Sheldon explains, the distribution of MPs by party is not even across the UK, which could have a significant impact on how the Commons handles key matters related to Brexit and the devolved administrations. 

The general election result has underlined that there are substantially different patterns of electoral competition in each of the four territories that comprise the United Kingdom. For the third consecutive election, a different party secured the most seats and votes in each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Moreover, the large majority secured by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives relied overwhelmingly on an exceptionally strong performance in England – of the 365 seats won by the Conservatives, 345 are in England.

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The territorial divergence that the UK’s politics has experienced over recent decades has important implications not just for election outcomes, but for the substantive activity of representation performed by MPs in the House of Commons. MPs often seek to act as ‘territorial representatives’, focusing on the specific concerns of their nation or region. This has not so far received much attention from academics, a gap which my PhD project is seeking to fill by examining the parliamentary behaviour of MPs from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and two English counties, Cornwall and Yorkshire, between 1992 and 2019. Early findings suggest that substantive territorial representation is particularly prevalent among members of nationalist parties and other parties that run candidates only in one territory, but that it is also a relatively common feature of the parliamentary contributions of many members of the UK-wide parties, at least in more recent parliaments. It can take various forms including representation of the material interests, public opinion and culture and/or identity of the territory in question, or of sub-state political institutions. With crucial questions pertaining to the future of the Union set to be up for discussion, how can we expect MPs from the different parts of the UK to go about representing their territories in the new parliament?

England 

Despite being drawn so overwhelmingly from English constituencies, there are few indications that the enlarged group of Conservative MPs will explicitly focus on England as a unit. While the Conservatives introduced English votes for English laws in 2015 and some prominent Conservative MPs have called for an English Parliament in the past, the ‘West Lothian question’ has slipped down the political agenda over the past few years as Brexit has emerged as the dominant issue for the right. That seems unlikely to change now, despite some interest from external commentators such as Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former special adviser. Conservative interest in the constitutional English question was always motivatived to a significant extent by concern that a Labour-led government might be able to force through policies applying only to England even though a majority of English MPs were opposed, as happened on a few occasions in the New Labour years. With the Conservatives now having a large majority overall, the political incentive to focus on the English question just isn’t there at the moment. Continue reading

‘Taking the border out of politics’ – the Northern Ireland referendum of March 1973

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In 1973, the UK government organised the country’s first referendum, on the subject of whether or not Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK. Now, as Brexit and its potential consequences make another border poll look like an increasing possibility, David Torrance looks back on the poll, its background, and its later constitutional significance.

Introduction 

The first constitutional referendum in the history of the United Kingdom took place on 8 March 1973. It was held nearly four years after the beginning of ‘The Troubles’ – a sharp deterioration in the security and political situation in Northern Ireland. 

What became known as the ‘border poll’ (although it was also called a ‘referendum’ or ‘plebiscite’, no one could quite agree on terminology) emerged as a means by which to ‘take the border out of politics’, or so it was hoped. In discussions with the Government of Northern Ireland (NIG) on 22 March 1972, the UK government proposed transferring responsibility for law and order from Belfast to London, phasing out internment, and periodic plebiscites.

The last two were, in principle, acceptable to the NIG, but an erosion of its ‘transferred’ powers under the Government of Ireland Act 1920 was not. The Prime Minister of Northern Ireland (Brian Faulkner) and his Cabinet later resigned, and on 30 March the Parliament of Northern Ireland – known as ‘Stormont’ – was prorogued and Direct Rule from Westminster introduced for the first time since 1921.

The referendum announcement

Speaking in the Commons on 24 March 1972, Prime Minister Edward Heath said:

We… propose in due course to invite Parliament to provide for a system of regular plebiscites in Northern Ireland about the Border, the first to be held as soon as practicable in the near future and others at intervals of a substantial period of years thereafter.

In effect, Heath was proposing to transfer the principle of ‘consent’ from the prorogued Parliament of Northern Ireland (enshrined in the Ireland Act 1949) to its people, ‘the Border’ representing a proxy for a much broader constitutional question.  Continue reading

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

A watershed is reached in Northern Ireland

Last week’s snap election in Northern Ireland saw the DUP’s lead over Sinn Féin reduced to a single seat and an Assembly without a unionist majority returned for the first time in the institution’s history. Brian Walker digests the result and considers what might happen next.

Gerry Adams was justified in declaring that the perpetual unionist majority since 1921 was ‘demolished’ in Northern Ireland’s snap election on 2 March. Only 40 seats in an Assembly of 90 members went to the two unionist-designated parties, with Sinn Féin’s 27 seats coming within a whisker of the DUP’s 28. The long-term demographic trend towards a nationalist majority in the province was at last translated into Assembly seats. Turnout, at 65 per cent, was 10 per cent up on May last year, the crucial differential turnout favouring nationalists in particular – the Sinn Féin vote was up by 57,000 compared with 23,000 for the DUP. Fairly small increases in percentage share of the vote – four per cent for nationalists, two per cent for unionists – made crucial differences accentuated by the reduction of seat numbers in the Assembly from 108 to 90. Of 16 lost in an Assembly of ten fewer seats, ten were unionists. Undoubtedly, nationalism has recovered momentum. A chance transfer of only a handful of votes could result in a Sinn Féin First Minister next time and seal the transformation.

Sinn Féin’s success should not be exaggerated. All nationalism’s 40 per cent share is well short of what is necessary for calling the border poll which is likely in time to become a Sinn Féin demand. Nationalist voters may have been keener to punish Arlene Foster and the DUP for arrogance than advance the cause of Irish unity. In any hypothetical straight vote in the Assembly  to test support for Irish unity, the pro-union side could muster around 50 votes to nationalism’s 40. There were other successes. The non- sectarian Alliance party held its 8 seats. The first call for cross community voting, controversially made by the Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt, ironically helped  save all 12 seats for the minority nationalist SDLP, although  at the cost of losing six of their own 16 seats and Nesbitt’s resignation. Nevertheless the score for centre parties could count in simple majority votes in an Assembly so finely balanced between the DUP and Sinn Féin.

Continue reading