BRITAIN’S DECISION TO vote to leave the European Union has led to much speculation about what lies ahead for the UK, Europe and Ireland.
Both before and after the referendum, politicians from various countries all seemed sure of one thing: they didn’t want a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic to return.
Overall, 51.9% of voters (17.4 million) in the UK wanted to leave the EU, while 48.1% (16.1 million) wanted to remain.
In Northern Ireland, 55.8% of voters (440,000) wanted to remain, while 44.2% (349,000) voted to leave.
A rather decisive 62% of people who voted in Scotland (1.6 million) wanted to remain, while 38% (just over one million) wanted to leave.
A second Scottish independence referendum is likely to be held at some point, but could be years down the line.
A border poll in the North is also not likely to take place for some time. Obviously, one of Sinn Féin’s main goals is a united Ireland and they want to see a vote sooner rather than later.
However, others who want the north and south reunified believe it’s too soon to hold a vote and doing so now would ultimately see it fail. Some people also fear a border poll would reignite sectarian tensions and could lead to violence.
Good Friday Agreement
The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) recognises that Northern Ireland remains part of the UK due to the consent of the people living there.
However, 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.
The GFA states:
It is for the people of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a United Ireland, accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.
If such a vote passed, the process of Irish unification would begin.
In recent weeks, we’ve asked all 158 TDs the following two questions:
1. Do you want to see a border poll in Northern Ireland during this government’s term?
2. If such a vote was passed, would you support reunification if a vote was held in the Republic of Ireland?
The GFA was agreed by politicians on 10 April 1998 following intense negotiations aimed at leading to lasting peace and the decommissioning of weapons by paramilitary groups. It was overwhelmingly approved in two referendums in the North and the Republic the following May, coming into effect in 1999.
The agreement put in place a framework to establish a number of political institutions representing the relationships that exist within and between the islands of Britain and Ireland: the Northern Ireland Assembly, the North South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council.
The GFA notes that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland could put legislation allowing for a united Ireland before the UK Parliament if citizens in the North voted for this in a referendum. It states:
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, the Secretary of State shall 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.
There appears to be a greater desire for a border poll among people in the Republic, compared to people in Northern Ireland.
In July, one month after the Brexit vote, a Paddy Power/Red C Research poll for the Sunday Times found that 65% of people in the Republic said they would vote in favour of a united Ireland.
An opinion poll carried out this week by Amárach Research for Claire Byrne Live asked people in the Republic ‘Is it time to have a United Ireland?’ Just under half (46%) said yes, 32% said no and 22% were unsure. The highest percentage of people in favour of a united Ireland were those in the 25-34 age group, with 54% saying yes.
However, an opinion poll carried out in the North by Ipsos Mori in August and September on behalf of BBC programme The View found that just 22% of people there would support a united Ireland, with 63% wanting to remain in the UK.
More than four in 10 people with a Catholic background who were polled (43%) wanted a united Ireland, while the vast majority of people (88%) from a Protestants background would vote to stay in Britain.
More than eight in 10 respondents (83%) said the UK’s decision to leave the EU hadn’t changed the way they would vote in a border poll.
So, where do Ireland’s political parties and TDs stand on the issue?
Overall, 74 TDs (47%) sent us statements. You can read all of the individual replies here.
Of this, 38 TDs (including 23 from Sinn Féin) want to see a border poll within the lifetime of this government, 33 do not and three are listed as ‘other’ because they did not directly answer the question.
If a border poll was passed in the North, 59 TDs who replied said they would support a similar vote here, three would not and 11 didn’t directly answer the question.
Just 13 of the 50 Fine Gael TDs answered, with six – including Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan – believing the time is not right for a border poll. However, most said they would support a similar vote in the South if such a referendum passed in the North.
Half of Fianna Fáil TDs – 22 out of 44 – replied to the survey. Of this, the majority believed holding a border poll during the lifetime of this government would be premature. However, many expressed a desire for a united Ireland at some point in the future.
All Sinn Féin TDs, so 23 overall, replied. Unsurprisingly, all are in favour of a border poll and want a united Ireland. All 158 TDs were contacted on several occasions, via phone and email.
Here’s what the main parties and/or leaders think:
Note: All responses are included in full at the request of some ministers and TDs, given the nuances of the topic being discussed.
A spokesperson said: “Fine Gael supports the Government position that there is no demand for a border poll at this time, as there is no evidence to show a majority of people want to join the Republic.”
Taoiseach Enda Kenny added: ”We have made it perfectly clear that the question of a united Ireland is contained in the Good Friday Agreement, which I support fully, and of which I, as Head of Government, am a co-guarantor with the British Government.
“The Good Friday Agreement and its successor agreements contain a very clear measure to the effect that if people north and south of the Border decide by referendum that there should be a united Ireland, they should have that opportunity. We support this measure. This measure must be part of a continued guarantee of the negotiations that will take place between the European Union and on our future relationship with the United Kingdom.
Does this mean that a Border poll is imminent? No, it does not. Does it mean that the Government is calling for a Border poll now? No, it does not. Does it mean that the Government is looking at the longer term as to what the people in Northern Ireland and the Republic might do in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement? We will guarantee that right and opportunity is protected in the language of the future negotiations. This is an international, legally-binding agreement of which the Republic is co-guarantor and it will be followed through on fully. That time is not now.
Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald sent us this statement: “As co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Government is committed fully to supporting its provisions. That Agreement addresses the question of a united Ireland. The Tánaiste fully supports the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and its successor Agreements in this regard.
“If, in the future, the people North and South decide by referendum that there should be a united Ireland then that opportunity should be available to them.
The Government will continue to work to ensure that there is full protection for the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, which is a binding, international agreement, in the context of the forthcoming negotiations between the EU and the UK on the future relationship.
Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan and Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar also don’t think the time is right for a border poll, saying it could lead to increased division in the North.
However, Varadkar said he believes there will be a united Ireland in his lifetime.
“I know that now this is not the time for a border poll. It would be unsuccessful and divisive and could undermine relations between the two communities in the north. We need to achieve a unity of purpose first of all,” he told us.
Micheál Martin said: “Fianna Fáil is absolutely committed to the reunification of Ireland and has been since its foundation. While in Government we were central to the Good Friday Negotiations, in which we negotiated and agreed the mechanism for a border poll.
However, the holding of such a border poll is the end point of a process, where a majority of people in the North have been convinced on the case for withdrawing from the UK. There is no evidence that this shift in public opinion has taken place and indeed the manner in which this immediate border poll has been suggested is likely to have further damaged the prospects of success of any such poll.
“What Fianna Fáil is doing, and what all political parties should be doing now, is to recognise the immense challenge presented by Brexit and work hard at home and abroad to help mitigate the worst impacts of this decision for Northern Ireland.
“It is through such constructive activity, rather than through unilateral demands for border polls, that we can begin to convince neighbours from the unionist community that their best interests are served in an all-Ireland context.”
Gerry Adams said: ”I firmly believe that building a united Ireland is in the interests of every Irish citizen, North and South, and offers the most sensible, prudent path to ensuring long-term prosperity, progress and equality for everyone on the island.
“We need to be planning for the future, not sustaining the mistakes of the past and partition, which has held back the economic and social potential of the country since the island was artificially divided.
“At present there are two states on this island, North and South, and three governments in Dublin, Belfast and London trying to run them. None of them can adequately prioritise the interests of all our citizens. For that, we need one integrated vision for the island.
We would be better served by a united Ireland that delivers real democracy, by economies of scale in infrastructural development, by the elimination of service duplication in areas like health and education, and by the economic benefits that would ensue.
“Recent research (Hubner and Van Nieuwkoop, 2015*) shows that Irish unity would result in significant long-term improvements in Ireland’s economy – concluding that Irish unity would result in a €35.6 billion boost during the first eight years of unification.
“Any neutral observer would easily come to the conclusion that there are no advantages for a small island nation, with 6.4 million inhabitants, on the edge of Europe having separate tax regimes and legal systems, competing economic development programmes, and back-to-back health and education systems.”
*The research, carried out by a consulting firm in Vancouver, British Columbia, is based on the models of unification seen in Germany in the late 20th century and post-partition Korea. Three unification scenarios were presented, with the most aggressive estimating a €35.6 billion boost in an all-island GDP in the first eight years of unification.
Brendan Howlin told us: ”It is the view of the Labour Party that reunification of the island of Ireland must be our ambition, but we recognise the principle of consent that underpins the ongoing peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland.
Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is empowered to determine the date on which a referendum on reunification of the island may take place, but only in circumstances where it appears that a majority are likely to favour such an outcome. We do not believe that is likely to be the case during the lifetime of this government.
“We support the reunification of the island of Ireland. In the unlikely event that a referendum is held in Northern Ireland, and that the people of the North vote for reunification, the Labour Party would campaign in support of this proposal in the Republic.”
The AAA sent us this statement: “The Anti-Austerity Alliance TDs – Ruth Coppinger, Paul Murphy and Mick Barry – are opposed to the calls for a border poll. A border poll would be nothing more than a sectarian headcount and would resolve nothing.
“A binary referendum is not a basis to reconcile the two communities, with their opposing national identities and aspirations. It would serve only to heighten tensions and pit Catholic and Protestant workers and young people against each other. The ‘losing side’ would not stoically accept its fate. Such a poll would only deepen divisions and stoke the flames of sectarian conflict.
The AAA TDs, alongside socialist and trade union activists in the North, would actively campaign for a boycott of this vote. We recognise that a majority of Catholics in the North aspire towards Irish unity, at least at some point in the future, for cultural reasons and because of the history of discrimination and oppression within the Northern state. We also recognise that most Protestants support the maintenance of the Union with GB for cultural reasons and because they fear becoming a vulnerable minority within a capitalist united Ireland, a legitimate concern which was reinforced by the experience of the IRA’s armed campaign.
“These fears and aspirations are continually preyed upon and manipulated by the sectarian parties and paramilitaries in both communities to suit their own narrow interests.
“Neither community has the right to coerce the other into a state they do not want to be part of on the basis of a simple majority vote. The current situation is not a solution but a border poll will not provide a solution either. No solution can be found while forces with a vested interest in maintaining sectarian division – whether the Green and Orange parties or British capitalism – continue to dominate.
“Only by building a new movement which unites Protestant and Catholic workers and youth around their common interests and in opposition to the political establishment can we begin to break down the sectarian barriers between our communities. On this basis, The AAA TDs favour a socialist solution to the national problem on this island where the rights of both Catholics and Protestants are guaranteed.”
The above quotes are based on statements from party leaders and/or when a party or alliance sent a joint statement on behalf of all members.
Who said what
Below is a selection of other people’s views from different parties and none.
Several Fianna Fáil TDs are not in favour of a border poll during the lifetime of this government, but most who replied would back reunification if the North did eventually vote to join the Republic.
Most of the Fianna Fáil TDs who replied sent us the same statement, namely:
We don’t believe a border poll is needed within the lifetime of this government. While Brexit has certainly focused the minds of many people, north and south, on a re-united Ireland, a border poll is not what is needed now. Fianna Fáil’s policy has always been for a reunited Ireland. However, this can only be achieved through consensus and respect for all communities, and traditions, on this island. This process only truly began following the Good Friday Agreement.
Some of the party’s members elaborated on their views, with Timmy Dooley telling us: “I’d love to get to the point where there is a border poll and there’s a chance of it succeeding. At the moment it would be a distraction. A lot of issues need to be addressed because of the Brexit vote. There is no chance of it passing, it would be a sideshow.
“I absolutely want to see a united Ireland, but a border poll in lifetime of this government will not be successful. We should be encouraging people to work together to deal with the fallout of Brexit. When people in the North see the long-term implications of Brexit, there is a much better chance of the majority deciding to move towards a Dublin government.
Five years out, there is real potential of it passing. There will be a economic benefit to the six counties of joining the Republic. Britain will be isolated. It’s clear the union is under threat of break-up, Scotland may vote to become independent.
His colleague Jim O’Callaghan had this to say: “Even though I believe partition was a sectarian solution to a political problem, I believe a border poll during this government’s term would be inadvisable. Irish unity will only be achieved when we can bring together the different traditions on this island.
At present, one million unionists in Northern Ireland are opposed to and distrustful of Irish unity. The main reason for their current distrust is the violence in Northern Ireland carried out by the provisional IRA for 25 years. They viewed this as a sectarian campaign against their community. Their distrust of Irish republicanism is similar to the distrust that Republicans have of the British security services who colluded in the killing of many nationalists and republicans. It will take time for the wounds in both communities to heal.
“A border poll in the next year or so will be extremely divisive. It will simply harden opinions and force people into sectarian groupings. It will probably result in sectarian violence. Northern Ireland was established as a sectarian state, with widespread discrimination against Catholics. That has now ended – not because of the IRA’s campaign of violence – but because of the civil rights campaign and the unacceptability of discrimination.
We should not, however, repeat the mistakes of the past and keep viewing the North as an entity made up of two irreconcilable groups. Bonds and bridges between the two communities must be further built. When those bonds are strong, the unionist population will recognise that a new Ireland, encompassing all the people of the island, is a promising and non-threatening prospect. All parties on the island now accept that unity is a decision for the people of Northern Ireland.
“In a less sectarian climate a border poll can occur but politicians have a responsibility to ensure that the current peace is not threatened. A border poll in the next few years would, in my opinion, destabilise the current peace in the North. The recent vote on Brexit in Northern Ireland shows that unionists are prepared to see the benefits of remaining part of a union with the south, rather than a small union with an inward looking and self-interested England. Calls by Sinn Féin for an immediate border poll undermine the significance of this change in unionism. Such tactless calls are counter-productive to securing Irish unity.”
‘Good economically and politically’
Unsurprisingly, all Sinn Féin TDs are in favour of a border poll, something the party has repeatedly called for.
Brian Stanley said: “Due to Brexit if the North is dragged out of the EU by England, then there will be two currencies and two political systems on the island and one part of Ireland in the EU and the other out of it.
The island divided in three different ways such as this will have serious impact socially, economically and politically. Reunification would bring the opposite and more positive effects.
His colleague Carol Nolan stated: “Partition has impacted and stunted development on this island and has been an obstacle in terms of developing agriculture and tourism. It doesn’t make sense to have two legal systems and two currencies on such a small island.”
Peadar Tóibín said he wants the people of the North to be given ”a democratic chance … to indicate their choice”.
He said a united Ireland would “reduce duplication and therefore the cost of key public service delivery” and “reduce the barriers to enterprise on the island”. He added that the border is a “competitive advantage for criminals” and getting rid of it would help prevent smuggling.
John Halligan and Finian McGrath of the Independent Alliance said they would support a border poll during the lifetime of the government, with Halligan stressing the idea needs to be backed by people in the north.
‘A significant risk to the peace process’
The majority of Fine Gael TDs did not reply to the question, but most of those who did don’t think the time is right for a border poll.
Josepha Madigan told us: “There is no evidence that a border poll in Northern Poll would result in a change to the status quo. In fact, the evidence points to the current arrangement, of devolved government based in Stormont, as being the preferred option for most people in Northern Ireland. The peace process, which is hugely important for people living both north and south of the border, is underpinned by the constitutional arrangement established by the Good Friday Agreement.
A border poll could undermine this, likely proving highly divisive and polarising, reigniting old tensions we thought quelled. Without evidence of popular support for unification within Northern Ireland, a border poll would be destabilising and entail a significant risk for the peace process. If evidence of a major change in public opinion in Northern Ireland emerges, I would reconsider this matter. But as things stand, I do not believe that a border poll should be held.
Peter Burke said: “It is too soon and would be extremely politically divisive. At present, there is no evidence of a majority wanting to join the Republic. People have a right to their opinion but discussions of border poll in the short-term future are premature.
“If a poll was to be held, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must judge it likely that a majority of the electorate would opt for a united Ireland. At present, there is no evidence to suggest that such an outcome would occur. If those resident in the both the North and the South wanted reunification then I would support it.”
‘Psychological borders caused by deep hurt, pain, suffering and loss’
Gino Kenny from People Before Profit (PBP) said: ”I’d like to see a united Ireland. In order for that to happen there has to be a consensus in the six counties.
“A border poll has been mooted many times over the last 20/30 years, a focus is on it against after the Brexit vote. I’m not against it, it depends on how it’s done. It’s about timing, I’m not sure it would pass, probably not based on polls.”
His PBP colleagues also questioned whether or not such a poll would pass. Richard Boyd Barrett said: “We would support a border poll, another question is whether or not it would pass.”
Bríd Smith added:
I think a border poll at this time would be divisive. I don’t think this issue has been properly debated. We have a lot of reform to do before we look attractive to Northern Ireland.
Eamon Ryan said the Green Party “would only like to see a border poll in Northern Ireland when the time is right which is not the case as it currently stands”.
His colleague Catherine Martin added: “One of the outcomes of the Brexit referendum was the immediate call by some for a border poll. Firstly, I should state that I would love to see a united Ireland by peaceful means. I was born and reared in a border town – I know first-hand how destructive and divisive borders can be – we do not want to see the return of physical borders.
“But much more work is needed to remove in many respects an even more important debilitating border, namely the psychological borders caused by deep hurt, pain, suffering and loss which is still extremely palatable and present for many in both communities. So much more work, often low-profile work, must first be done to build up trust and mutual respect.
Surely at this stage, after all that the people, north and south, have been through in the troubles, we should accept the one overriding principle that reconciliation, mutual respect, tolerance, consultation and inclusivity must be front and centre. Reconciliation and ultimately the goal of a united Ireland means bringing people together, all the time building trust not coming up with snap, unilateral proposals which exclude instead of include, and which instil fear instead of instilling much needed trust and confidence.
“It is my opinion that a border poll should not be rushed as that would alienate and would prove divisive running the risk of turning the poll into a sectarian headcount and going on then to proceeding to lose the vote, as inevitably would happen, would be a serious setback for the goal of achieving a united Ireland for a generation.
“Yes, I would like to see a border poll take place some day, but only if it had a realistic chance of being successful and that is not the case at present as the unionist community is to say at the very least certainly not enthused by it – to have a poll knowing in all likelihood that it is going to fail is a retrograde step.”
Four independent TDs replied, with all in favour of a border poll. Mattie McGrath said: “As a political proposition there would appear to be little to fear in subjecting the issue to a democratic vote.
“Consensus is a key principle of the post-Good Friday politics. If the proposition was put in line with the provisions of that agreement then it might provide a measure of clarity that would be helpful in an environment that is increasingly uncertain post-Brexit.”
The Social Democrat and Workers and Unemployed Action Group TDs did not reply to the survey.
With reporting by Ronan Smyth and Christina Finn