Northern Ireland news

Secretary of State Brandon Lewis declines to spell out border poll criteria

Brandon Lewis has refused to spell out the circumstances under which a border poll will take place. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire

SECRETARY of State Brandon Lewis has again refused to spell out the circumstances under which a border poll will take place.

Ireland's Future board member Colin Harvey wrote to the Conservative Party minister in December in an effort to nail down the necessary criteria for any future referendum on Irish unity.

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 states that it is up to the secretary of state to decide when a border poll should take place.

Mr Harvey challenged Mr Lewis to say what evidence he would take into account when determining whether it “appears likely ... 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”?

He also called on the secretary of state to share any information that supports the assertion “that the relevant test has not been met”.

But in a response the Queen's University academic has described as "disappointing and dismissive", that the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) has declined to lay out the necessary circumstances for a border poll.

The letter from the NIO's Constitution, Rights and Healthcare Policy Group says the British government is committed to the Good Friday Agreement, including adhering to the terms under which a referendum would take place.

"In making this judgement the secretary of state must have regard to reasonable factors and must make a judgement on objective, reliable and empirical information," the letter said.

"The High Court, in a recent judicial review on this matter, agreed with the government that there is no legal requirement or that it is in the public interest for the government to set out a policy detailing fixed criteria on the holding of a referendum."

Mr Harvey said the response failed to address many of his letter's "fair and legitimate questions".

"Everyone knows that we are on a pathway towards these referendums taking place – people want answers and will reach their own conclusions about the role of the secretary of state," he said.

"The obvious absence of detailed thought and proper preparation is a major concern and the lack of clarity remains troubling."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, who in November asked the secretary of state in Westminster what criteria he would employ when deciding to call a referendum, said the approach taken by Mr Lewis and the NIO was "totally deficient".

"Whether the legal obligation to provide the circumstances for a poll exists or not, it is clearly in the interests of a fulsome debate on this island’s future that everyone knows how the decision will be made," he said.

"Making those conditions a secret will not serve the people of this island who are engaged in that conversation about reshaping our future."

In April last year, in response to an action taken by anti-Brexit campaigner Raymond McCord, the Court of Appeal ruled that it was up to the secretary of state to "decide what is, or is not relevant to the decision-making process depending on the prevailing circumstances".

It said the British government's discretion to direct the holding of a border poll was "unqualified".


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