Editorial: Hilary Benn wisely spurns calls to clarify further the criteria for calling a border poll

News Letter editorial on Saturday April 13 2024:
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​The Belfast Agreement of 1998 has a key section about the calling of a border poll.

It reads: “​1. The Secretary of State may by order direct the holding of a poll for the purposes of section 1 on a date specified in the order. 2. Subject to paragraph 3, the Secretary of State shall exercise the power under paragraph 1 if at any time it appears likely to him 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.”

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This has become perhaps the most crucial part of the deal from a unionist perspective. Think about what has happened. The UK has almost given up any say on whether NI remains part of the UK. It has said it is a matter for the island of Ireland.

This was a massive concession to nationalism, and a reflection of British generosity to the point of foolishness. Spain, France, etc say that the question of whether a part of their national territory secedes is not just a matter for the region but for the entire country. The US has no mechanism for a state to leave.

This paragraph of the agreement means that if there is clear evidence of majority support for an all Ireland, London has to grant a vote and abide by the outcome. There has been a clamour in recent years for the UK to clarify the circumstances in which it would call a plebiscite. Regrettably, the former prime minister John Major has endorsed the demands.

He should be ignored, and it is the latest sign of the current Labour Shadow NI Secretary Hilary Benn’s good judgement that he is not backing such a call. Discretion in interpreting public opinion in the province on our constitutional future is one of the only levers the UK now has to put a brake on what could be a self-perpetuating mantra about the inevitability of an all Ireland, support for which has in fact barely increased – even post Brexit.