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Border poll: 'Nationalists will say the recent Assembly elections show things are trending in their direction'

Nationalists may be fobbed off in the short term, but this will lead to demands for clarification from the British government about what conditions will permit a border poll, writes Caoimhín De Barra.

Caoimhín De Barra

THE KEY TO any successful peace deal is not compromise, but ambiguity. Ambiguity allows both sides to think they have won their point, with the hope that when this ambiguity is revealed later on, the participants will have no choice but to compromise then in order to save the original peace.

Much of the success of the Good Friday Agreement has rested on this ambiguity.

Yet many of the problems that have arisen in Northern Ireland since 1998 stem from the same source, as unionists and nationalists realised that their interpretation of certain provisions within the agreement differed drastically from one another.

A good example of this was how the question of decommissioning brought the peace process to a standstill in the years immediately after 1998.

Unionists and nationalists can differ in their interpretations

The Good Friday Agreement stated that all parties agreed:

to use any influence they may have, to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years.

Sinn Féin interpreted this as providing a way of sidestepping the issue. They argued they only signed up to try their best to encourage “others” to decommission.

Unionists had a very different understanding. They read this provision as a commitment to total decommissioning within two years. When this didn’t happen, they withdrew from the power-sharing arrangement.

However, up until now, the ambiguity of the peace deal has not provided any insurmountable problems. But we are beginning to approach the time when another vague provision of the agreement will come under further scrutiny, one that has serious potential for trouble.

Why has a border poll been dismissed?

In the wake of the Brexit vote, Sinn Féin representatives immediately demanded a border poll on the question of a united Ireland. This was dismissed by representatives of the British and Irish government. The question, however, is why?

56% of voters in Northern Ireland voted to remain within the EU, with 44% wishing to leave. Obviously, a vote to remain within the EU is not the same thing as voting for a united Ireland. But at the same time, a majority of voters in the six counties have expressed a preference for something that they can only have if there is a union between both parts of the island.

It’s not so much that the Northern Irish vote on Brexit should automatically lead to a border poll. But it does raise the question of what, exactly, would justify calling such a referendum?

For an answer, we turn once again to the Good Friday Agreement.

A border poll can only be called by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

The agreement says the secretary can order 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 …form part of a united Ireland.

In other words, the conditions that will allow for a border poll are similar to Potter Stewart’s famous maxim on what constitutes pornography: the Secretary of State will know it when he or she sees it.

The Brexit vote last June, coupled with the Northern Irish Assembly elections last week, will inevitably raise questions of what both communities think “appears likely” and “majority” actually mean.

Sinn Féin’s position is undoubtedly that as soon as a 50.1% vote in favour of a united Ireland looks possible, the border poll should be held.

Unionists will try to prevent a border poll from ever taking place

However, if it were to go ahead, they would likely try to insist that a clear majority (say 60%) would be required in order for any vote on Irish unity to pass.

Alternatively, unionists might try to demand that approval from a fixed percentage of the total electorate, not simply a majority of the votes cast, should be necessary to end partition. This benchmark was used in the Scottish devolution referendum of 1979.

Despite a majority of Scottish voters (51.6%) voting in favour of devolution, the failure to get the approval of 40% of all registered voters (not just those who actually voted) defeated the proposal.

If deciding what constitutes a majority will prove tricky, trying to figure out when success for a border poll “appears likely” will be even more difficult, given the obvious subjectivity involved.

Opinion polls can’t be trusted anymore

Up until recently, people might have assumed that opinion polls would be the best way to gauge the demand for a united Ireland. But if 2016 has taught us anything, it is that what opinion polls suggest voters are going to do, and what voters actually end up doing, are not always the same thing.

Nationalists will point to the recent Assembly elections as evidence that things are trending in their direction. Although the decay of unionism has been somewhat exaggerated – 46% of first preference votes last week went to parties that are unambiguously opposed to Irish unity, as opposed to 40% to parties unambiguously in favour – Sinn Féin in particular will feel emboldened.

Taking this 40% as money in the bank and assuming that non-aligned or even liberal unionist voters can be wooed to the cause by the threat of Brexit, Sinn Féin will insist that a majority in favour of a united Ireland will emerge if only the poll were held.

They may be fobbed off in the short term, but this will lead to demands for clarification from the British government about what conditions will permit a border poll.

Political tensions haven’t gone away

Should nationalists ever feel that any kind of a majority exists in favour of unity and the British government is dithering on holding a poll, it is not hard to imagine trouble ensuing.

All of this is complicated enough without having to consider how the 26 counties would vote on the matter, or what to do about unionists who might not be willing to accept a vote for a united Ireland.

The questions about the political relationship between all corners of this island have been swirling around for over a century now. As a fella once said, they haven’t gone away, you know.

Caoimhín De Barra is Assistant Professor for Irish History and Culture at Drew University, New Jersey.

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