Opinion

A border poll 'supermajority' would subvert democracy

The Irish News view: NIO minister Steve Baker is wrong to say basis of unity vote should change

NIO minister Steve Baker addresses the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly at the K Club, Co Kildare on Monday
NIO minister Steve Baker addresses the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly at the K Club, Co Kildare on Monday NIO minister Steve Baker addresses the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly at the K Club, Co Kildare on Monday

ONE-TIME self-styled Brexit "hard man" Steve Baker has continued his meandering journey through the realities of our politics, this time by making an entirely unhelpful intervention about a border poll.

The NIO minister's latest declaration is that a referendum on Irish unity should require a supermajority to pass. Speaking at a meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, Mr Baker appeared to propose a 60 per cent threshold rather than the '50 per cent plus one' majority clearly demanded by the Good Friday Agreement.

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He was, apparently, expressing a personal view. Mr Baker may reflect that it was unwise – and perhaps naïve – to do so. He was not giving a view on, for example, the situation in Israel and Gaza, government tax policy or Wycombe Wanderers' prospects in the Football League.

Rather, he was addressing a firmly settled issue which falls within the ambit of his government department and which has already been the subject of some mischievous speculation.

Ian Knox cartoon 25/10/23
Ian Knox cartoon 25/10/23 Ian Knox cartoon 25/10/23

The fatal flaw in any proposal to move the electoral goalposts is that it inevitably means some votes are more equal than others. Or, as SDLP leader Colum Eastwood put it: "...unionist votes cannot be worth more than anyone else's." Gerrymandering may have been consigned to Northern Ireland's past, but its grotesque legacy lingers on.

DUP MP Ian Paisley, perhaps predictably, has already been on manoeuvres at parliament, bringing forward a bill last year – albeit yet to be debated, let alone taken seriously – that would require a supermajority for any referendum on a constitutional issue.

It is encouraging that not all unionists are of that mind. UUP MLA Mike Nesbitt's assessment – that to change the rules on a border poll would be "morally, ethically, legally and practically wrong" – is correct.

It will be remembered that SDLP grandee Seamus Mallon warned that '50 per cent plus one' was a shaky premise on which to base a unity vote. But his was an outlier view that provoked widespread controversy and failed to attract support.

There is a certain irony in the fact that it is Mr Baker's reflections on Brexit which have led him to his supermajority position. The hard Brexit that he and his fellow Tory 'spartans' pushed for – a political heist aided and abetted by the DUP – is the very same constitutional upheaval which has supercharged the Irish unity debate.

It is bewildering that anyone would look at Brexit and conclude that altering the voting system was the answer to the shambles.

Mr Baker has previously shown some all-too-rare self-awareness for a politician, including apologising to Ireland and the EU for his behaviour during Brexit. He should do the same on his supermajority proposals.