United Ireland: Why isn’t it on the cards despite Sinn Féin’s success? † Northern Ireland

Sinn Féin praised his first win in a Northern Ireland parliamentary election as a defining moment for the British-controlled region and called for a debate on a united Ireland.

Party chair Mary Lou McDonald had a simple message for union members on Saturday: “Have no fear, the future looks bright for all of us.”

The party has deliberately downplayed its long-term goal for a united Ireland, but union members will be shocked by previous statements that they would like to see a border poll on Irish unification within five to 10 years.

Can Sinn Féin name a border poll as the largest party in Northern Ireland?

Categorically no. That power rests solely with the Secretary of Northern Ireland. Brandon Lewis categorically ruled out such a poll on Sunday and his successors are unlikely to order a referendum with such sweeping implications.

As Sinn Féin’s deputy leader Michelle O’Neill noted during the BBC’s pre-election leadership debate, the Brexit vote showed the dangers of referendums being held without adequate preparation.

The last such exercise in Ireland legalized abortion and is widely regarded as a model for controversial polls. It took years of preparation, including popular assemblies and legislative proposals that had been pre-approved by parliament so that voters knew the exact consequences of their vote.

How can a boundary sound be established?

The Good Friday Agreement allows for a poll at some point but avoids defining the circumstances, except that it is the UK government that decides not to give parties in Northern Ireland. It reads: “If at any time it seems likely to him that a majority of the votes would express the wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and become part of a united Ireland, the Foreign Secretary will Order in council to make a border sounding possible”.


Are the election results enough to qualify for a majority for a poll?

The agreement doesn’t define what it means by a majority, but experts say some statistics should be used, not just an election result.

A group of academics led by Alan Renwick, the deputy director of the constitutional unit at University College London, has spent two years studying a possible boundary poll. Their 259 page report asks all the important questions about how one might come about and how it would be designed.

They conclude that there would have to be some time of majority support for a united Ireland, probably between 51% and 55%, before the Secretary of State should carry out his “mandatory duty”.

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Alan Whysall, also of UCL’s Constitutional Unit, points out that a united Ireland in 1998 was a distant prospect and that the wording in the agreement is marred by “serious gaps and ambiguities in the framework” for a poll.

UCL proposes six sources of evidence for a majority: election results, opinion polls, qualitative research, a vote in Stormont, seats gained in elections and demographics.

Why is demographic data important?

It is widely believed, rightly or wrongly, that those of Catholic descent would support a united Ireland, while those of Protestant persuasion would fight for the status quo.

The latest census results from this summer could show that for the first time there are more Catholics than Protestants.

However, Peter Shirlow, the director of the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies, believes a new cohort could emerge as Northern Ireland’s peace settlement matures. He calls them “secular trade unionists” of both religious heritages who want to go to Northern Ireland to become part of the UK.

If there was a united Ireland, what would it look like?

Debates south of the border assume Parliament would be in Dublin if there was ever a united Ireland, but UCL found that this would pose many problems.

The report outlines four constitutional options:

  • Devolved Institutions retained in Northern Ireland but with sovereignty transferred from London to Dublin.

  • One central legislature, probably in Dublin, but union members would probably see this as a hostile takeover. “This model is the historical preference of many Irish Republicans, constitutional or otherwise. But some would see this approach [as came across in our evidence sessions] because it conflicts with the consensus-building aspect of the 1998 agreement,” says UCL.

  • A federal state. This model “would avoid some of the governance complications of skewed devolution. But a federation of two units would be unbalanced,” says UCL, which looked at institutions around city regions or population centers.

  • A confederation of two states – a Northern Ireland independent of the UK and Ireland. UCL felt that this would “less clearly meet the requirement of unity laid down in the 1998 agreement”. Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit status within or outside the EU may also require a referendum.

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