Queen's Policy Engagement

A Northern Ireland border poll

The prospect of a vote in Northern Ireland on Irish unity – a border poll, as it is often called – is more and more discussed. The Constitution Unit has published a report by Alan Whysall, Senior Honorary Research Associate of the Unit, which aims to set out the key issues, and stimulate discussion.

A Northern Ireland border poll

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must by law call a poll if it appears likely that a majority of the people of Northern Ireland would vote for Irish unity. This is a key part of the mechanism by which the question of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status was resolved in the Good Friday Agreement. A poll in the Republic of Ireland (the South) would also need to be held.

Members of the UK government have recently been talking about this possibility, in pointing up the dangers of a no-deal Brexit. There is no real evidence of a majority at present for Irish unity, indeed no inevitability that it will be found in the future. But from a range of opinion polling results it is clear that nationalism has a spring in its step, and opinion has become more volatile. There is some evidence in the polling that Brexit would indeed tip the scales narrowly to unity. If politics becomes especially brittle, such a change could occur in short order.

If there are votes for unity – both North and South – the consequence according to the Agreement is the negotiation of proposals for a united Ireland – taking in, potentially, almost half the Northern Ireland population who opposed such a move.

The provision in law and the Agreement regarding a border poll is stark and minimal. There was no opportunity in the negotiations in 1998 to develop it further: unity then was a distant prospect. There are hence serious gaps, and ambiguities, in the framework.

So for example it is not clear on what basis the Secretary of State should assess opinion in Northern Ireland. There is no express provision about the Southern referendum. What a united Ireland would look like or how it should be negotiated is barely set out at all.

The vote on constitutional status is framed by history and the Agreement as a binary choice. But how to move on to Irish unity, if the votes were in favour, can be shaped in accordance with the principles embodied in the Agreement of seeking consensus and respecting identity.

The process for doing so remains to be decided. It will require time. It probably needs to proceed in phases. It will only be successful if at every stage efforts are made to bring all interests aboard.

It is possible to envisage a poll taking place in a positive environment, with the proponents of the two different constitutional cases seeking to appeal across the community; and if the result is for unity, then taking part in developing the arrangements for a new Ireland.

But this is far from guaranteed. It needs careful stewardship. It would be preferable that the devolved institutions were up and running during such a process, and playing their part in maintaining stability and encouraging agreement.

The report 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 and civil order of recent decades.

It is important that the issues are considered and as far as possible resolved before the machinery is invoked.

It is particularly important that the British and Irish governments have a shared understanding and work closely together in their traditional peace process role of encouraging constructive political engagement and bolstering stability – which the all-consuming nature of the Brexit debate has inhibited them from doing recently.

There are lessons to be learned from elsewhere: the Constitution Unit has been involved in work about organising public debate and engagement on fundamental issues, and about structuring referendums.

What the report shows is that more work is needed to address the questions raised. The Unit is planning a project to address these questions, with partners from both Northern Ireland and the Republic.

The full report, A Northern Ireland Border Poll, is available to download on the Unit’s website. For a fuller summary of the issues discussed in the report, see Alan’s earlier blog on a border poll, which was published on 6 March.

Article originally appeared on the UCL Constitution Unit website. 

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 Constitution Unit.

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