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

Light and shadows: the RHI scandal and the temptations of secrecy

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The RHI inquiry in Northern Ireland has led to concerns about a record ‘void’ that has left room for doubt and suspicion. Ben Worthy argues that the lack of a record might aid political deniability, but means that politicians also can’t be truly exonerated when accused of wrongdoing.

Marilyn Stathern, in her famous article on the ‘Tyranny of transparency’, asked: ‘what does visibility conceal’?  While openness can shed light on some areas, it can also create shadows and shade to hide in. One of the biggest fears for transparency campaigners is that openness will create an opposite and equal reaction. Instead of letting in the light, could freedom of information laws, open meetings or open data lead to officials and politicians trying to hide from them, or even fight them? Could it create what’s called a ‘chilling effect’, whereby officials and politicians bury their decisions elsewhere?

Finding any firm evidence for resistance, avoidance or concealment is notoriously difficult. It could take place in numerous ways, whether avoiding questions or requests, keeping records and decisions off paper, or using non-official emails or networks like WhatsApp. It’s hard to prove a negative, that something isn’t happening and, if avoidance done well, it should stay hidden. Only the most incompetent or inept are likely to be caught.

A few concrete examples have surfaced. We have had flashes of an apparent ‘chilling’ in the Trump White House and closer to home with Michael Gove using a private email address for public business in 2012 (as urged by his then adviser Dominic Cummings). More worrying was the evidence in Scotland in 2018 that some parts of government were engaged in ‘deliberate delaying tactics and requests being blocked or refused for tenuous reasons’. But are these isolated cases or the tip of an iceberg of systematic resistance? Studies have come to varying conclusions and a select committee in 2012 concluded that there was no firm evidence.

However, it now looks as though transparency campaigners’ worst nightmare has come to pass in Northern Ireland’s RHI scandal, as detailed in Sam McBride’s new book Burned. The RHI scandal, as the later Inquiry FAQ explains, concerns ‘the non-domestic renewable heat incentive… a financial incentive for businesses to move away from non-renewable sources of energy’. However, the FAQ goes on, ‘how the scheme came about in the form in which it was adopted, how it has been operated and the possible financial consequences of the scheme have become the source of considerable public concern’. You can see the background here and a timeline. 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

Deal or no deal, the UK government needs a new strategy for the Union

_MIK4650.cropped.114x133Almost seven months after the EU and UK agreed to extend the Article 50 process, a new Brexit deal has been agreed. Akash Paun argues that whether the new deal passes parliament or not, the Brexit process so far has demonstrated that the UK government needs to change its strategy for maintaining the cohesion of the Union.

In his first public statement as prime minister, Boris Johnson made two constitutional pledges that stand in tension with one another. On the one hand, he promised to strengthen the UK, which he described as ‘the awesome foursome that are incarnated in that red, white and blue flag, who together are so much more than the sum of their parts.’ But in the same speech, he reiterated his determination to take the UK out of the EU by 31 October ‘no ifs, no buts’ and, if necessary, no deal. Brexit has already strained relations between the UK and devolved governments. A no deal departure would make matters even worse, and would run directly counter to the PM’s ambitions to strengthen the Union.

The Scottish and Welsh governments strongly oppose leaving the EU without a deal. In a joint letter to the prime minister in July, the Scottish and Welsh first ministers argued that ‘it would be unconscionable for a UK government to contemplate a chaotic no deal exit and we urge you to reject this possibility clearly and unambiguously as soon as possible.’ The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have also explicitly voted against no deal. 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

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