Opinion
Subscriber Only

Pat Leahy: We need clarity on criteria for calling referendum on Irish unity

Such a move should be part of a general re-examination of Belfast Agreement

When Leo Varadkar and Michelle O'Neill agree on anything it's worth having a look at it. The two second-in-commands – Varadkar in the Irish Government, O'Neill in Sinn Féin – found themselves in unusual accord this week on a contentious subject – a Border poll. So what were they saying?

Varadkar told the Co-operation Ireland annual business dinner on Tuesday evening that while the results of the Stormont elections showed a decrease in the number of MLAs who favour unification (owing to the loss of SDLP seats), there was a need to "clarify the mechanism for calling a Border poll".

O’Neill agreed the following day, when asked about Varadkar’s comments.

“We should know what are the circumstances in which a unity referendum will be called,” she said. “I think there’s no doubt that the Good Friday Agreement is a bit grey in terms of the criteria but, yes, that should be clarified.”

The two leaders have a point, even if their views on the desirability of a Border poll in the immediate future are very different. Sinn Féin wants a poll as soon as possible; Varadkar – although he is the greenest Fine Gael leader for a long time and says his party should works towards the unification he hopes he will see in his lifetime – believes that unity is a much longer-term project which should be approached with decades rather than years in mind.

The Belfast Agreement is (presumably deliberately) vague on exactly what should trigger the calling of a Border poll. It says: "The Secretary of State [for Northern Ireland] may by order direct the holding of a poll"; and then explains that "the Secretary of State shall exercise the power under paragraph 1 [to call a 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."

But there is no mention of what the Secretary of State might consider when making this decision. Should he or she take account of opinion polls? Or election results? Or votes of the Assembly? Or what?

“It says it’s for the Secretary of State to call the unity referendum whenever he thinks that there will be a successful outcome to that referendum. So I just think we need clarity around that, I think that would be helpful for everybody,” O’Neill said.

There is good news for unionists – despite their tendency to treat even mention of the poll as evidence of Lundyism

"Surely it should involve the Northern Ireland Assembly and not just be the judgment of the Secretary of State," was Varadkar's take.

“We would also need to know what the question was and have clear proposals as to what unification would look like,” he added.

On the agenda

They’re right, you know. Because the unity question is now part of our political agenda and debate in a way that it wasn’t when the Belfast Agreement was negotiated and signed in 1998 – partly because of the rise of Sinn Féin to prominence in the Republic, partly because the alienating effects of the Troubles are abating – it would be better to have some degree of clarity about how the British government might come to a decision to hold a Border poll. Not least because there is a presumed onus on the Irish Government to hold such a poll in the Republic if the British give the go ahead for one in the North.

The Fianna Fáil Senator and Cathaoirleach of the Seanad Mark Daly has long been pointing this issue out and has gone so far as to commission a lengthy report on the lacuna in the agreement, one of a series he has produced on united Ireland issues. He cites the judgment in a Northern Ireland court case that was taken to force the British government to identify the criteria for a Border poll. The judges declined to play ball, and it remains up to the Secretary of State.

Nonetheless, the decision-making process would presumably involve some combination of the elements mentioned above – opinion polls, election results, votes or resolutions in the Assembly – as well as the assent of the Irish Government.

Good news

The good news for unionists – despite their tendency to treat even mention of the subject as evidence of Lundyism – is that on any remotely fair consideration of any of those criteria, there is no sign that a Secretary of State could conceivably call a Border poll.

There is voluminous opinion poll evidence that there is no majority in Northern Ireland for a united Ireland, or anything like it, or any prospect of there being one for the immediate future. The election results, as Varadkar noted, have returned fewer united Irelanders than before. There is no majority in the Assembly. And the Irish Government is strongly against a Border poll.

Significantly, there is little sign that any of this will change in the foreseeable future. Indeed, the growth of the northern “neithers” – those for whom politics is not primarily an orange or green issue – may be the thing that remakes Northern Irish politics, rather than the rise of Sinn Féin. It certainly undermines the general expectation held by so many people in Ireland and elsewhere that a united Ireland is inevitable.

With all this in mind, the British and Irish governments should work together to agree the criteria for a Border poll. That should be part of a re-examination of the 1998 agreement to take account of the rise of the middle ground in the North and the inexorable dissipation of the binary politics – and its contrived architecture – of orange versus green.

That would, of course, require co-operation, trust, understanding and a shared sense of mission between Dublin and London. This has always been necessary for progress in Northern Ireland, but it is sadly, and damagingly, lacking right now.