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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: 1°C
United Ireland

Explainer: Why are politicians talking about a 'border poll' now?

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has raised the possibility of a referendum on a united Ireland.

TAOISEACH ENDA KENNY has raised the possibility of a border poll as part of negotiations over the UK’s departure from the European Union.

Comparing the North’s situation to that of East Germany’s absorption into the EU, he said that the clause in the Good Friday Agreement could be triggered, allowing for a referendum on the North’s constitutional status.

His call followed comments from Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin that expressed a hope that Northern opinion would move towards majority support for Irish unification.

So why are people talking about a border poll now?

Although a slim majority of UK voters supported leaving the European Union in the recent Brexit referendum, a majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain.

The Brexit result raises the prospect of the North being taken out of the EU, against the will of a majority of people there.

Moreover, new British prime minister Theresa May believes Brexit will end the ‘invisible border’ between North and South, and has said border controls may be brought back.

There have been warnings that the resulting EU border could disrupt not only cross-border trade, but possibly the peace process.

One way to ensure Northern Ireland remains in the EU would be to allow it to join the Republic, a current EU member state – but for this to happen, a border poll would first be required.

EU flag stock PA PA

What is a border poll?

The Good Friday Agreement recognises that Northern Ireland remains part of the UK due to the consent of the people living there.

But it also provides for the people of the island of Ireland to exercise their right of self-determination by agreement between the people of North and South.

It says that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland could propose legislation allowing a united Ireland before the UK Parliament.

According to the Agreement, this would happen if…

…the wish expressed by a majority in such a poll is that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.

But the Agreement adds that a poll will only be held if a majority appear in favour of it in the first place:

The Secretary of State may by order direct the holding of a poll for the purposes of section 1 on a date specified in the order … if at any time it appears like 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.

Voters in the Republic of Ireland would also have to vote in favour of unification, in a separate poll.

Is there any political appetite for it?

Enda Kenny’s intervention is the first time he has called for a border poll. But it really depends on the British government.

Theresa Villiers, until last week the Northern Ireland Secretary, said she didn’t think the conditions had been met for a border poll. The new NI Secretary, James Brokenshire, has also insisted there’s not enough support.

He said:

There is a clear constitutional settlement in relation to the border poll and it is also clear to me opinion does not support a change.

First Cabinet meeting PA / Dominic Lipinski New Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire PA / Dominic Lipinski / Dominic Lipinski

How would the conditions be met?

A majority of the North’s population expressing their desire to secede from the United Kingdom and join a united Ireland would be required, in order for a poll to take place.

And while there are now almost as many people in the North from Catholic households (45%) as from Protestant (48%), that hasn’t quite translated into resounding support for transferring responsibility for the North from London to Dublin.

How important is the EU to the Peace Process?

Speaking to RTÉ’s The Week in Politics at the weekend, former Irish Times editor Geraldine Kennedy said that the Brexit result could require the renegotiation of the Good Friday Agreement.

I hadn’t realised until I went back and read the agreement again how inextricably linked with the EU it is.

The British government may need to consult with Dublin before pulling out of the EU, Kennedy said, adding:

Certainly I’m advised that there would have to be a referendum in Northern Ireland, to dismantle the Belfast Agreement [Good Friday Agreement] and take the EU parts out of it.

And I don’t think anybody has seriously thought that through yet.

Who wants a border poll?

Sinn Féin has been trying to drum up support for a border poll for years now, and was quick off the mark in the wake of Brexit, saying the North was going to be dragged out of the EU “on the tails of a vote in England”.

United Ireland 'makes more sense' PA / Niall Carson Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams at the Regency Hotel in Dublin in 2013. PA / Niall Carson / Niall Carson

The demand for a border poll, and demands in Scotland for another independence referendum, gained plenty of traction in the London press following Brexit.

Unlike Scotland, though, the position of the North’s pro-EU majority is hampered by the fact its First Minister, Arlene Foster, campaigned to leave the EU.

Foster publicly refused to countenance the Taoiseach’s proposal for an all-island Brexit forum when the two met recently.

Enda Arlene Enda Kenny and Arlene Foster at the North South Ministerial Council in Dublin Castle in July.

What about voters in the North?

A poll of 2,000 people last year conducted by BBC and RTÉ Primetime showed that two-thirds of people in the Republic wanted a united Ireland in their lifetime, but only 30% of people in Northern Ireland supported the move.

Among those surveyed in Northern Ireland from a Catholic background, 57% answered Yes and 29% answered Don’t Know.

In the Republic, the overall support for a united Ireland dropped to 31% “if it meant paying more tax”.

The results slightly contradicted a 2011 survey by Northern Ireland Life and Times. which found that 52% of Northern Irish Catholic respondents favoured union with Britain over a united Ireland.

A 2014 poll by the Belfast Telegraph, meanwhile, found that most people in the North supported a border poll, but that 59.8% would vote No.


Speaking yesterday, Ian Paisley Jr said he thought Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s suggestion of a border poll was “far out, man”.

Paisley insisted that nationalists and unionists alike had “no interest whatsoever” in a united Ireland.

He also argued that Dublin could not afford the cost of unification – echoing the arguments that took place during the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

In doing so, he perhaps presaged the sort of debate that would happen if the border poll was allowed to go ahead.

Read: Ian Paisley Jr thinks Enda Kenny’s border poll idea is “far out, man”

Read: Sinn Féin wants a vote on a united Ireland after Brexit and a second Scottish referendum is on the way

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