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Good Friday Agreement

When should the UK call a border poll in Ireland? Calls for clarity on this 'quite remarkable' question

The decision to hold a referendum is ultimately one to be taken by the UK’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

THE OIREACHTAS COMMITTEE on the Good Friday Agreement has heard that the UK’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland “would not stand in the way” of holding reunification referendums on both sides of the border.  

The committee today heard evidence from Professor Colin Harvey and Mark Bassett BL, the authors of a 2019 Queen’s University Belfast Report about The EU and Irish Unity

The two academics avoided the use of the term ‘Border poll’ which a number of members of the committee noted has particular political connotations. 

In the opening remarks, Harvey and Bassett noted that the Good Friday Agreement allows for Irish reunification following simultaneous referendums in both jurisdictions on this island. 

The decision to hold a referendum is ultimately one to be taken by the UK’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the GFA states that the secretary is to hold such a poll if they deem it likely that a majority of people in Northern Ireland would vote for a united Ireland.

Speaking recently on the BBC’s Question Time programme, NI Secretary of State Brandon Lewis said that “nobody should be afraid of having a conversation” about Northern Ireland’s constitutional future.  

It follows a recent poll which showed that a majority of people in Northern Ireland were in favour of a border poll in the next five years. The poll also said that 47% would favour remaining in the UK while 42% would vote for a united Ireland, 11% were undecided.  

In light of these developments,  Prof. Harvey said that more clarity is required about the exact circumstances where the Secretary of State would hold such a vote. 

“I think it’s something again that we need to hear more about. It is quite remarkable that the fundamental constitutional change on the island of Ireland could potentially be triggered by a Secretary of State in London on a basis of which we don’t really know a satisfactory amount about,” he said.  

Harvey added that he has written to the Secretary of State to get detail on this and has not received a reply. He encouraged members of the committee to also seek their own clarifications on this matter. 

Regardless of the role of the Secretary of State, he said the Irish government and State should be be preparing for such a vote.  

I think ultimately where we need to be in this conversation is we need to be ready first. What we don’t want is the Secretary of State triggering this in the next couple of weeks. I think it’s much better to focus a conversation around being prepared on this island first.And let me make a suggestion. I think that when we’re ready on this island and when, for example, the Irish government steps into this debate and signals it is ready. My view and I may be wrong, is that the Secretary of State in London will not stand in the way of this process going forward.

Speaking about the circumstances of holding referendums on unity, Basset referenced a 2020 Court of Appeal of Northern Ireland judgement which found that the Secretary of State must act in an “honest and rigorously impartial” manner when deciding whether to hold such a referendum.

“So it’s not to be approached in a way that perhaps we see in the current UK government’s approach to the Scottish referendum, ‘this is a problem, how will it be defeated?’, he said. 

PastedImage-48522 Professor Colin Harvey at today's meeting.

The academics also noted that Brexit has “dramatically altered the nature of this constitutional conversation” and that a reunited Ireland was now the more “principal route” for Northern Ireland to re-join the EU. 

Bassett argued that support for the EU “remains high” in Northern Ireland that this is something that must be considered by the Secretary of State when making a determination 

“If that decision to hold a referendum was reached by the Secretary of State. If it’s to be consistent with the Good Friday Agreement, it’s going to have to be matched by a concurrent vote or referendum in the Republic of Ireland,” he added,

“So it’s better if the Irish government and the Irish State are ready for that.”

German reunification

The 2019 report authored by Harvey and Barret was commissioned by the EU Parliament and includes a section on the “Reunification of Germany and the Lessons for Irish Reunification”, particularly in the context of EU membership. 

Bassett said there are “very important distinctions” between the two situations but that they are also similar in many respects as the EU had recognised that “German unification was a possibility” over 30 years before it took place. 

“There was a clear constitutional path to German unity in the German constitution. That’s replicated in the Good Friday Agreement. It’s a centrepiece of the Irish constitution, it’s a centrepiece in the Northern Ireland Act, which is part of the UK constitutional framework and it’s recognised in international law,” he said.

There are important differences, but they shouldn’t be insurmountable. I mean West Germany and East Germany were more different at that time than north and south are now. 

A number of TDs and Senators raised the German comparison with Fianna Fáil Senator Niall Blaney saying that “it’s not comparable to Germany, I don’t agree at all.”

Blaney also noted that there were “no unionists at our meeting” and that “the more we talk up a united Ireland the less  chance we have of getting unionists to the table”.

Also speaking during the debate was deputy leader of the Alliance Party Stephen Farry MP , who said that a referendum should only be called if it had a reasonable chance of success. 

He said that his party was “very willing to take part in any rational, constructive discussion” about unity “without prejudice”. 

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