Deaglán de Bréadún: Sinn Féin success brings border polls north and south closer

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald says that planning for a border poll can happen while working on the restoration of the Stormont executive. Picture by Mark Marlow/PA Wire
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald says that planning for a border poll can happen while working on the restoration of the Stormont executive. Picture by Mark Marlow/PA Wire

THERE are few certainties in politics but it seems safe to say that the remarkable success of Sinn Féin in the northern local elections, coming in addition to their status as the biggest party in the Stormont Assembly, has increased the likelihood of a dual referendum north and south on a united Ireland.

The decision to call a vote in the north rests with the British secretary of state, but it is difficult to predict when the holder of that office might set a date. The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement specifies that consent for Irish unity must be "freely and concurrently given" in both parts of the island which indicates that border polls must be held north and south on the same day, as was the case with the vote on the Agreement itself.

Although nothing can be guaranteed, the likelihood of a majority for unity in the south certainly looks far greater than in the northern jurisdiction. True-blue unionists will, by definition, be against the proposition but they need to get a majority on the day, with republicans and nationalists campaigning hard to get the biggest vote instead.

In eight opinion surveys conducted across the board in the north since June 2021, between 48 and 59 per cent of respondents said they would vote against a united Ireland, with the percentage in favour ranging from 27 to 42 points. The figures in the undecided/abstaining category ranged from 8 to 23 per cent.

But things are changing and the electoral success of Sinn Féin is having considerable effect. The criteria for the calling of a border poll by the secretary of state have not been spelt out. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 simply declares that, if at any time it appears likely "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", then the secretary of state shall make an order to enable a referendum.

Speaking at the Irish embassy in London last week, former prime minister Sir John Major said there was a case for urging the British government, following negotiations with its Irish counterpart, to announce the precise terms that would have be met in order for a poll to be called.

An interesting analysis by Alan Whysall of University College London's Constitution Unit, published in 2019, gives a list of possible "triggers" the secretary of state might consider before deciding to announce a vote on the future of the border.

They include a clear majority for unity "in a succession of reliable opinion polls", but Whysall adds that "judging what is a sound poll is not straightforward".

Another criterion might be "a Catholic majority in a census", which turned out to be the case in 2021, two years after Whysall's report was published. However, he cited previous opinion poll evidence "which suggested that a bare majority of Northern Ireland Catholics favoured a united Ireland even in the longer term".

Other criteria could include the balance of forces between nationalist and unionist parties after an election, although he points out that "many vote for these parties as a matter of community allegiance, not necessarily subscription to every policy position".

A majority vote in the Assembly in favour of a poll would be very influential, but any such resolution would presumably by blocked by a Petition of Concern invoking the cross-community element, whereby separate majorities of unionists and nationalists would be required to pass the motion.

It is worth pointing out that the relevant legislation on a border poll stipulates there must be a gap of at least seven years before the next vote of that nature. This increases the pressure on the secretary of state to make the correct judgment, presumably in consultation with the Irish government and of course with Number 10 Downing Street.

They say a week is a long time in politics, but seven years would be a political eternity, when anything could happen.

In the event that a border poll is finally held, it won't be the first time in the north's history. Readers of a certain vintage will recall that a referendum took place on March 8 1973 as to whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or join up with the Republic of Ireland.

The poll was boycotted by nationalists and the SDLP called on its supporters "to ignore completely the referendum and reject this extremely irresponsible decision by the British government".

In the event only 59 per cent out of an electorate of just over a million turned out to vote. The result was that 591,820 opted to remain within the UK with only 6,463 in favour of a united Ireland: 98.9 as against 1.1 per cent.

Brian Faulkner said the outcome was fantastic and showed without any doubt that the people of Northern Ireland wanted to stay British, but the Taoiseach of the day, Jack Lynch, described the vote as "unnecessary, irrelevant and completely predictable".

That was then, this is now.