Noel Whelan: Uniting Ireland would make Brexit process look simple

Some think Irish unity is as simple as winning referendum in Northern Ireland

It is reported that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Fine Gael parliamentary party on Wednesday that “the plates are shifting in Irish politics”.

There is some uncertainty about whether the remark was made by him with regard to growing levels of support for Irish unity which he had referenced a little earlier. If it was then he is correct.

There will be no earthquake anytime soon but the tectonic movements under the issue of Irish unity which had been gradual up to now by reason of demographics have been accelerated by Brexit-related factors.

The chaos in British politics, the absence of working politics in Northern Ireland and the fact that a majority of voters in Northern Ireland opted to remain in the European Union are among the elements adding momentum to these shifts. There is frankly no Brexit outcome which will not loosen Northern Ireland’s de facto position in the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is likely post-Brexit to have something akin to special status within the EU or be in absolute regulatory alignment with the EU for a lengthy transition period.

An exploration of the provisions and the likely constitutionally chronologies suggests that the scenarios under which Northern Ireland would decide to join with the Republic and how constitutional expression would be given to that decision are extremely complex.

Even if the British government were to be persuaded that there needs to be a Border poll in Northern Ireland anytime soon and even if such a Border poll were to vote for Irish unity that would only be the first step in a delicate constitutional process likely to be as complex as Brexit itself.

Simplistic suggestion

Some appear to have a notion that Irish unity is as simple as winning a referendum in Northern Ireland. The other simplistic suggestion is that, in a manner akin to the Belfast Agreement, referendum votes could be held on the same day north and south and that if the voters in both parts approved then a united Ireland would follow in early course.

In reality things are more complex than that even in constitutional terms, not to mention the surrounding politics and economics. A successful Border poll in Northern Ireland would be only the beginning of a process of constitutional reframing which could take five or 10 years. A referendum or several referendums would be required in the Republic to rewrite large parts of our Constitution so as to facilitate and structure a united Ireland. This would be part of a process of complex negotiations between the British and Irish governments, between Dublin and the Northern Ireland political parties and between those parties.

Assessments of the support levels for Irish unity are in the abstract. They are of limited value in ascertaining how these scenarios would play out. The question will only be asked of voters in the Republic after a majority in Northern Ireland have voted for unity.

Assessments of the support levels for Irish unity are in the abstract. They are of limited value in ascertaining how these scenarios would play out

The votes held on this island about the Belfast Agreement were different in character. The Belfast Agreement was implemented in Northern Ireland by means of Westminster legislation. The referendum there was effectively a consultative vote. It had no actual legal consequence. It did, of course, provide an important popular endorsement for the terms of the agreement.

‘Harmony and friendship’

The vote that day in the Republic was a constitutional referendum, which amended our basic law in important ways. Among the new provisions inserted is the following: “It is the firm will of the Irish nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions, recognising that a united Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island.”

The Belfast Agreement itself provides that “the secretary of state shall exercise the power [to call a Border poll] if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”.

The Belfast Agreement is, of course, a legally binding internationally registered treaty between our two countries, something which Brexiteers appear to have missed before their referendum and would like to ignore now.

Once a discernible majority for Irish unity is indicated by polls in Northern Ireland then the secretary of state must hold such a poll. If the majority vote yes then the British government must lay “before parliament such proposals to give effect to that wish as may be agreed between Her Majesty’s government in the United Kingdom and the Government of Ireland”.

The other reality is that giving effect to the new arrangements is likely to require a second referendum in Northern Ireland on the precise arrangements for a united Ireland.