Next March, if anyone could be bothered, we might mark the 50th anniversary of the Border poll. It was held in 1973. And it showed Northern Ireland to have a degree of political consensus unknown outside of North Korea – 99 per cent of voters agreed that Northern Ireland should stay in the United Kingdom. A grand total of 6,463 people voted for a united Ireland.
This unanimity was, of course, illusory.
Catholics, at the urging of their political leaders, boycotted the poll. This made it nothing more than a sectarian headcount, a numbering of Protestants by their presence at the polling booths and of Catholics by their absence.
That Border poll is deservedly forgotten because it resolved nothing, settled nothing, decided nothing. The killing carried on regardless for another quarter of a century.
We are not in 1973 any more.
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Who could have imagined at that time that Sinn Féin, then little more than the propaganda wing of the IRA, would emerge, as it did from last week's Assembly elections, as the largest party in a Belfast-based parliament? Or that Britain, which had just joined the European Union, would have departed from it, while leaving Northern Ireland within its single market?
Yet, even though so much has changed, that rather farcical plebiscite of 1973 has one little shard of relevance for contemporary Ireland. It is a reminder that a Border poll has meaning only in very specific political circumstances. If it is not actually capable of producing a workable consensus, it could be an empty gesture – or worse, a driver of further division.
There is, on the one hand, every reason to think that a Border poll is highly likely within the next 10 years. Slow demographic change, the real possibility of Sinn Féin holding simultaneously the offices of first minister and taoiseach, the prospect of another referendum on Scottish independence and the continuing repercussions of Brexit – all of these forces are converging to make it an active probability.
But there are also reasons to fear that it could be at best a bit of a mess and at worst dangerously divisive. To acknowledge that a Border poll may well be coming must also be to recognise that almost no one seems remotely ready for it.
We need to be clear about the brutality of the numbers. Many people would like more than a binary choice and a simple majority decision. But the Belfast Agreement excludes such subtleties. We are stuck with the stark rule of 50 per cent plus one. In principle, 49.99 per cent of people in Northern Ireland could be subsumed into a 32-county Irish state to which they do not wish to belong.
This is a very big thing to do. It carries an obvious moral responsibility: to know exactly what future polity those people are being ushered into.
The first thing to recognise about the prospect of a Border poll is that it does not belong to Sinn Féin or any other party. It belongs to what the Belfast Agreement calls “the people of the island of Ireland alone”. But this begs the question of whether the population of the island constitutes a single “people”.
And, indeed, what “alone” really means.
The way the agreement imagines a Border poll is in fact shaped by these two major complications. Firstly, there is not one poll, but two. Consent to a transfer of sovereignty over Northern Ireland from London to Dublin would have to be, in the words of the agreement, “freely and concurrently given, North and South”. In practice, because it would require changes to the Constitution, the South’s consent would have to be expressed through a referendum.
It is thus in principle possible that the North could vote to join a united Ireland while the South then voted against creating one. This may seem unlikely, but it is a possibility that has obvious, and potentially chaotic, consequences.
What it means is that the votes could not just be on an abstract proposition. Voters on both sides of the Border would need to know in detail that they were voting for (or against) the same thing. The proposal would have to be fully worked out well in advance.
Secondly, it is not really “ourselves alone” that has the power here. It is the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland who gets to make the call on whether and when a Border poll should be held.
And this, too, is complicated. The formula in the agreement is an odd mixture of the imperative and the impressionistic. The secretary of state is under a strict obligation to call the Border poll if it appears likely that there may be a majority for Irish unity.
This is both compelling and vague. A mandatory duty (call the poll) is based on a subjective judgment (if it seems probable that it will pass).
To complicate things further, the agreement assumes good faith on the part of the secretary of state. He or she is supposed to exercise rigorous impartiality in making this fateful decision. No political party and no calculation of advantage for the London government should have any bearing whatsoever on it.
To which one can but add: yeah, right.
The Brexit upheaval has brought to power a UK government that does not even pretend to be impartial in relation to Northern Ireland and its future. It has aligned itself in particular with one party, the DUP. It has also shown that it regards all agreements as subject to its own immediate political needs.
And even the implications of this bad faith are deeply uncertain. Nationalists may fear that a secretary of state would wrongly ignore evidence that there might be a majority in favour of a united Ireland. But it could work the other around: he or she might choose to call a Border poll prematurely as a distraction from other problems in British politics.
So we cannot be confident that a Border poll would happen in a calm atmosphere and after careful deliberation. The entity in which it would occur, the United Kingdom, is a very uncertain and unstable polity in which English, Scottish and Welsh nationalisms are all acting as centrifugal forces.
This, though, is not a reason to shut down discussion of a united Ireland and a Border poll. On the contrary, it is the most important reason to open it up.
The two referendums, North and South, are on the Irish horizon, but their timing and context are not in the control of Irish people. It is the combination of these two realities that makes it so important that the ground is laid now. Four very big things have to be done over the next few years.
Firstly, we can’t change the fact that the secretary of state for Northern Ireland gets to make the decision. But we can change the way in which she or he makes the call.
What's needed is an objective expert body, established by the British and Irish governments and the Northern Ireland Assembly, but perhaps under the auspices of the United Nations.
It would independently advise the secretary of state whether or not there is sufficient evidence that a united Ireland might command a majority. It should have very specific criteria: demographic analysis, polling data, electoral returns and so on.
This may seem like a dull technical point, but it is crucial to the question of who owns this potentially epic moment. It should not belong to Sinn Féin or the Tory party or any other group. It must belong to the Irish people – and that can be the case only if it results from objective evidence about public opinion.
At the moment, just 30 per cent of people in the North say they would vote for a united Ireland tomorrow and a mere 33 per cent say they would do so in 15-20 years' time
Second, Irish unity needs to be defined. If the Brexit referendum tells us anything, it is that people should not be asked to vote for a slogan. As of now, that is pretty much what a united Ireland amounts to.
There are some really fundamental questions that would have to be decided before they can be put to the people.
The most basic one is whether we are talking about a centralised Irish state run from Dublin – essentially the existing republic with six more counties – or a more complex one in which Northern Ireland’s established forms of home rule persist.
This is not just a matter of political institutions. What, for example, about the courts and the legal system?
And what about identity? The existing Irish State guarantees under the Belfast Agreement the “birthright” of anyone born in Northern Ireland to retain a British identity.
Those rights would not disappear in a united Ireland. So how are they to be expressed? The current evidence is that most people in the South haven’t a clue or don’t really care.
The most recent Irish Times Ipsos/MRBI poll on the subject showed that nearly two-thirds of people in the Republic say they would vote for unity. But even larger majorities say they would not support even minor adjustments to the expression of the new state’s identity: about three-quarters are against a new flag, a new anthem or rejoining the Commonwealth.
This suggests that, for most citizens of the Republic, the whole prospect still floats in an Irish Dreamtime. It has little purchase on day-to-day reality.
Before a Border poll can take place, the Irish government would have to puncture that bubble. It would be obliged to present a concrete and detailed proposition on the nature of the new state to which people can give, not just consent, but informed consent.
This applies also to the third imperative: a plan for the economy and social services. The polls show that support for a united Ireland in the South melts away when one simple question is asked: would you accept higher taxes to pay for it? Almost 80 per cent would not.
Equally, in the North, just 25 per cent say they would pay higher taxes as a price for Irish unity. Not only are most people reluctant to contemplate a quid pro quo – they are not even willing to pay the quid.
The Institute for Irish Studies/Irish News poll shortly before last week’s election showed that the most important issues for voters, regardless of their religion, were healthcare and the economy.
Remarkably, in that poll, “constitutional issues” – which is to say support for or resistance to a united Ireland – barely registered. One voter in a hundred saw this as the most important question.
What this suggests is that if there are to be two referendums on Irish unity, they will be conducted in a context where voters on both sides of the Border want to know about taxation, employment, the future of the National Health Service, the education system and so on. Sloganeering and flag-waving won’t answer those questions.
Lastly, there is the awkward question of what happens if a Border poll is held without any real public enthusiasm?
The obvious answer may be that this could not arise because the vote would be held only if success were already more or less assured. But this is not nearly as obvious as it seems.
Sinn Féin, which has all the momentum behind it, demands a Border poll whether or not there is evidence that it would succeed. It is an article of faith.
At the moment, just 30 per cent of people in the North say they would vote for a united Ireland tomorrow and a mere 33 per cent say they would do so in 15-20 years’ time. And more than two-thirds, even of nationalist voters, say they want the incoming executive to prioritise jobs, health and welfare over the constitutional question.
So, it is not at all improbable that political pressures could force the calling of a referendum that most people don’t really want and that no one is quite ready for. We could have another 1973 Border poll – a gesture that resolves nothing while destabilising everything.
The way to avoid this possibility is not to avoid the issue of a united Ireland. It is, rather, to make it real. Only when it has concrete content can it be the subject of genuine democratic deliberation – which is, after all, what self-determination means.