Queen's Policy Engagement

A Northern Ireland Border Poll

This blog summarises comments made by guest contributor Alan Whysall at an event on border poll perspectives held in the School of Law at Queen's on 25 July, organised by Prof Daithí Mac Síthigh and chaired by Conor McCormick. The talk built on a previous paper on the subject, published by the UCL Constitution Unit in March this year.

A Northern Ireland Border Poll

As the prospect of a hard Brexit looms, a Northern Ireland border poll continues to be much discussed, there and beyond. Some nationalists like Seamus Mallon urge caution, and the Taoiseach has spoken of the potentially destabilising consequences of a poll around Brexit. Others however seek an early poll, especially following a Brexit that results in a hardened border. Some Unionists detect a changing political landscape to which they must respond; others appear unmoved.

I argue here that

  • While a border poll is probably some time away, and not inevitable, there is a real possibility that a divisive Brexit may create in the near future a majority for a united Ireland so unequivocal (even if slender) that it must legally be acted upon – little though either government wants it.
  • And that is potentially a leap into the void: the Good Friday Agreement offers no route to a united Ireland, only a principle and trigger; nor any blueprint for the end result. A poll in the circumstances could be profoundly destabilising. We need a process, and ideas about the shape of a United Ireland.
  • While Seamus Mallon’s specific proposals on changing the threshold for unity raise difficult problems, he points up a fundamental issue. It has been generally recognised for decades that Northern Ireland can only function with a system of government attracting cross community support; and this would still be true in a united Ireland.
  • With constructive politics and partnership between the governments, it may be possible to create an orderly path to unity in an agreed Ireland. But it will necessarily proceed in phases.
  • Without such a political environment, and if partnership between the governments continues to fail, there are serious risks to all that has been achieved in Ireland in the past 20 years. The risks indeed are there now; the prospect of a poll could gravely exacerbate them.
  • We need new thinking and leadership to respond to the challenges that may soon faces. It is doubtful the parties and governments alone can provide it – London in particular seems to be no place to do so. So it can only come from wider society in Northern Ireland. The universities have a real role in shaping it.


An early poll?

Neither government wants a poll in the foreseeable future. Probably a poll is some years away, and it is not inevitable at any point.

But there is a much more than theoretical possibility that the Secretary of State will find himself obliged to call one, perhaps soon.

That could arise if opinion polling showed sustained, even if slender, margins in favour of a United Ireland. There is no such majority at present. But polling suggests there might be, following a hard Brexit.

Unionist and British Government attitudes have reanimated nationalist spirits; and election results and polling both point to a growing centre ground falling outside the traditional Unionist/nationalist divide, but unimpressed with London attitudes, that could swing the vote.

The polling might well be equivocal. But ignoring consistent polling in favour of unity would rapidly call into question the government’s commitment to the Agreement; and if it suggested bad faith, might be open to legal challenge.

But in current circumstances, the holding of a poll would be a great leap into the unknown, carrying enormous risks to stability and order.

This is because the Good Friday Agreement provides no roadmap to a United Ireland. These issues were not seriously discussed during the negotiations leading to the Agreement.

It does little more than outline a principle – that if there are majorities in both parts of Ireland in favour, there should be a United Ireland; and establish the initial trigger, with the northern border poll mechanism. But it says little about the process thereafter.

Nor does the Agreement say what a United Ireland should look like. There is no shared understanding of this even among nationalists, indeed the ground work for developing it has not been done.


What degree of support is needed for Irish unity?

Indeed there are differences within nationalism over the fundamentals. The former deputy First Minister Seamus Mallon has suggested the 50% plus one margin for unity set out in the Agreement is not a sensible basis for proceeding, and has proposed a review with civic dialogue about the future shape of the island before a border poll. He calls for a new approach involving “parallel consent” – that is a measure of agreement among both major traditions in Northern Ireland. The Taoiseach has also warned about the perils of unity achieved by a narrow margin.

It is easy enough to criticise Mr Mallon’s proposals in their specifics. The Agreement is clear in making the decision on constitutional status a binary, 50% plus one matter. Head-on attempts to change these terms are unlikely to secure the degree of consensus the Agreement had. And it is very hard to formulate a workable alternative rule.

But he is also certainly right that the Agreement throughout prescribes decision-making with cross community support on all key issues.

Indeed the Agreement itself was reached on the basis of rules of “sufficient consensus”, requiring such support. These were written into the process because it has been an accepted principle since the 1970s that arrangements for government in Northern Ireland without cross community acceptance could not function.

It is difficult to argue that that simply becomes a non-issue in a United Ireland.


Unity has to be an extended process, not an event

In the abstract, an obvious synthesis of these approaches might be to require that, if the majority decision in favour of the United Ireland is taken, in both parts of the island, the model of governance for the enlarged state, in the parts that particularly bear on Northern Ireland at least, would have to be acceptable to both unionists and nationalists.

In practical political terms, though, it is not easy to construct a process to achieve this.

One major obstacle is that realistically political unionism will not engage in the development of an agreed Ireland until it is convinced that it is going to happen; hence not at any time in advance of a border poll, in which it will be fighting for the union.

And even in advance of that, outlining what might be on offer in a new Ireland requires much new thinking and new political dialogue among nationalists and any in the Unionist community willing to engage. As Gerry Adams says, it is stupid to have a referendum without a plan.

So we need plans from the different interests; we also need a process commanding wide confidence to develop the eventual agreed plan for a united Ireland.

Hence the UCL paper suggests that unification, if it is to be stable, might need to be brought about in a succession of phases. It is certainly not a single event. A possible sequence might be:

  • If it is decided a border poll should be held, there might be a period of several years in advance of the poll for the Unionist and nationalist camps to prepare their best offers – and permitting other work to be done, drawing in wider society, to help advance thinking.
  • If there were votes for unity, North and South, a constitutional convention might be established, aimed at securing a “sufficient consensus”, like the Agreement, on new arrangements for government. This might in effect (whether or not in form) be a new Constitution for Ireland, that British-identifying people could feel ownership of. Along, perhaps, with enhanced structures embracing both islands.
  • Such a negotiation could not be open-ended, and the paper suggests that if there were no agreement within a fixed period, default arrangements might have to come into force. And indeed there might, in recognition that things had changed, be a move to some sort of shared sovereignty during the negotiation period.

The wider framework of relations within these islands may also be an important element in a final outcome.

This is a first attempt at developing a process. The question needs public ventilation that it has never had, with careful reflection about ensuring that all interests feel represented, and maximising incentives for agreement.


The need for constructive politics …

The prospect of a border poll could itself transform Northern Ireland politics for the better. If the process were undertaken in a constructive way, parties would recognise the logic that they have to appeal – most of them for the first time – across the community divide, rather than just to their bases.

Hence unionism would have to make proposals to nationalists about how Northern Ireland could become a place to which they could feel they more fully belonged as Irish people, where their interests were fully protected – in Belfast and Westminster.

Nationalists would need to convince Unionists that a United Ireland would be for them a “warm house” in Gerry Adams’ words, where their interests were taken into account – more than in the UK, where they are numerically much less significant.

Such a dialogue would also recognise that many in Northern Ireland no longer feel the old labels apply to them – a recent survey found that less than half of Northern Ireland people now identified as either “Unionist” or “nationalist”: a distinct change in the political landscape that shaped the Agreement, and earlier attempts at a political resolution.

From there, if the vote were for unification, it would bode well for constructive engagement on the shape of a United Ireland.

But this requires most parties to move dramatically from the way they practice politics at present. So this is a very optimistic scenario. There might be a good chance of succeeding in a climate of sustained constructive politics – with restored devolved government, playing its part in maintaining stability; and with the British and Irish governments working together in their traditional role as motor of the peace process.


The risks of division and instability

But we are at present some distance from that, and retreating further.

The prospect of finding a positive course through the unification process is much poorer where a poll becomes a legal requirement before all the ground work is done; where the parties remain at odds; where the British government is fixated on Brexit and parliamentary arithmetic at Westminster, and unable to work effectively together with the Irish government, indeed potentially by reason of Brexit in a hostile stand-off with it.

If this situation arises, then a poll would certainly project us into the unknown, with many fears and tensions raised, but without any clear routes to constructive outcomes.

Rather than change their approach, parties may simply dig in. It is all too possible some will see disruption as the friend of their cause – though in the long run they would probably be wrong.

  • Republicans may see a non-functional Northern Ireland as increasing the appeal of unity to the traditionally nationalist. But it also raises the prospects of disorder which may lead people who are essentially nationalist in outlook, as in Seamus Mallon’s thesis, to think that whatever the ultimate rights and wrongs, unity is imprudent now. And perhaps especially voters in the South.
  • Supporters of the union might wish to suggest to the south that unity spells disorder. But in doing that they risk making Northern Ireland a much less attractive place, damaging the prospects of its economic well-being and social unity, and the willingness of its young people to stay.
  • Some in England may view Irish unity with equanimity – polls indicate that some who favour Brexit would be content for Northern Ireland leave the United Kingdom as its price. But in present circumstances they would likely be helping recreate seriously troubled conditions in Northern Ireland, which would once again be a recurrent drag on British politics, without any clear or quick way out.


In fact no one is likely to benefit from such negativity. The risk is a return to the old formula of misery for all, as regards politics and public order, and continuing neglect of the economic and social challenges that increasingly undermine well-being in Northern Ireland.

But it is hard to be confident that we shall avoid these consequences. Politics in Northern Ireland is becoming more confrontational and unconstructive.

Much comment in London, and some of it from government sources, wishes away the fundamental problems that Brexit may raise, dismissing those in the Irish government and wider Northern Ireland society who raise them; and there are hints of using damaging Ireland as a lever in the Brexit negotiations.

If it is to avoid the risks of progress made in recent decades unwinding, London needs to take its responsibilities seriously, and work closely with the Irish government to advance politics. The parties need to adjust to the new conditions: to the need in a border poll context to appeal not just to their bases, but across the whole community.


Civic society needs to step up

But in present circumstances, it is hard to see all the necessary leadership and new ideas coming from those sources alone.

Much more has got to come from people outside established politics in Northern Ireland – and beyond. There is no one else, and the consequences of it not happening are grave.

There are fortunately signs of civic society shedding its inhibitions a little – for example in the Connected Citizens initiative announced by James Nesbitt.

More of this is needed, and the efforts need to be drawn together to achieve the critical mass necessary to make a public and political impact.

And there is real scope to explore the possibilities for using new techniques to engage the public, like citizens’ assemblies, to develop constructive thinking.

The universities can play a crucial role in achieving this. They can provide the forum and support for voices across the community to be brought into debate, including in particular young people who may find the traditional political avenues unappealing (as is the experience across the Western world, but perhaps especially with us).

As a start, a team drawn from UCL, Queen’s and Ulster University, and universities in Dublin is taking forward the themes in the UCL paper – there will be more news on this soon.

But the prospect of a border poll presents us with a great range of new issues to consider, and much more work is needed.


The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license. 

Alan Whysall
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Alan Whysall is a former senior civil servant who has worked on Northern Ireland for most of the last 35 years. In his retirement he has become an Honorary Senior Research Associate at The UCL Constitution Unit and is a founding member of Pivotal, Public Policy Forum.

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