Ex-Northern Ireland Secretary suggests ‘there may be grounds’ soon to call a referendum on Irish re-unification

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A former Northern Ireland Secretary has indicated that the time for holding a border poll may soon be upon us.

Shaun Woodward made the suggestion this morning on Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show.

Mr Woodward was the Labour government’s last NI secretary (the Westminster government’s top figure in the Province) holding the post for almost three years from summer 2007, until a change of government put Tory MP Owen Paterson in charge.

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Mr Woodward said this morning that “the tea-leaves are undoubtedly pointing in the direction of suggesting there may be grounds for holding the referendum”.

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Shaun Woodward pictured in 2008Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Shaun Woodward pictured in 2008
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Shaun Woodward pictured in 2008

Mr Woodward went on to add that he hoped the new Prime Minister Liz Truss looks “very seriously” at “the very clear growing conditions that are being met in Northern Ireland”.

As to when a border poll may happen, he said “I don’t think this is going to happen in certainly anything less than a year, two years”.

The News Letter has reported many times in recent years about the conditions necessary for a border poll being called.

See here for example:

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What follows is a verbatim account of Mr Woodward’s remarks (hence the sentences are not all perfectly clear and linear – they often aren’t in verbatim speech):

The tea-leaves are undoubtedly pointing in the direction of suggesting there may be grounds for holding the referendum – which, under the terms of the Belfast agreement that we signed up to and incorporated into legislation, both in the UK and in the Republic of Ireland, we are bound to do that if those conditions are met.

And his judgement of course – and it is about judgement – is that it’s looking increasingly like those conditions have been met for the wish of the people of the island of Ireland, north and south, to now have the referendum.

Stephen Nolan:“That’s your belief – why?”

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Well, I don’t believe the conditions have necessarily been met, but it’s getting pretty close.

I mean when if we go back a few years we were looking at this, you know you were looking at for example was there a majority in the census of Catholics in Northern Ireland.

Well, we’ve seen recently that that number has shifted considerably.

Is there a majority that would wish for this to happen in the Assembly? Well, the Assembly now has a nationalist majority (it doesn’t function of course, and that’s a whole other conversation).

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And then we’re looking at whether or not the opinion polls, which seem to suggest in Northern Ireland that there is a wish that actually a majority, even if it’s a small majority, would want to indicate their preference.

Now if all those three things are met, the legislation actually requires the Secretary of State, it actually says the Secretary of State shall make an order-in-council. It doesn’t say ‘might do’. It says ‘shall’.

So you know interesting thing here Stephen is, yes, it’s a judgement call, but I think you have to respect the legislation, as you know. I’ve always done so.

And we can have a poll. Let’s remember that the poll doesn’t of course mean itself that will bring about unification.

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What the poll is, is a poll that says ‘as a point of principle do you want this to come about?’

If that happens, and both sides have to vote in this – both sides meaning Northern Ireland and the Republic – then you’re into the negotiations afterwards about what it looks like, and then in the case of the Republic of Ireland, because that would be a constitutional change, they would be bound to have a second referendum in the Republic of Ireland as well.

So a poll isn’t a done deal. A poll is a poll.

However, the legislation, the Belfast Agreement, the Good Friday Agreement, that brought about the peace process, is very clear: if those conditions are met, and it’s the wish of the people of Northern Ireland to have a test of opinion, then the Secretary of State shall do it – not ‘might’ do it, but ‘shall’ do it.

Stephen Nolan:“And Shaun if you’re saying it’s coming very close and it’s a matter of judgement, it might be across the line already, if it’s a matter of judgement, right? If it’s that close.”

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Well it could be. But, you know, I mean historically it doesn’t follow that because things are that close, I mean David Cameron [?] what happened with the United Kingdom and Brexit.

David Cameron made a judgement call that’d it’d be the right thing to do and he was wrong. He actually called it wrong...

I think what’s very important is that the Secretary of State now under this government under Prime Minister Liz Truss looks at this very seriously. And I would just say this, and you know Stephen I’ve felt this for a long time: it’s been quite a long time since we’ve had a Prime Minister who’s really taken the people of Northern Ireland seriously enough and not taken them for granted.

I think it would be very mindful for the new Prime Minister not to cavalierly disregard the very clear growing conditions that are being met in Northern Ireland.

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It doesn’t follow that Prime Minister Truss should agree to doing this. But on the other hand, take it very seriously...

What we’ve got to see here is if there is a majority of the public who would like to see a referendum take place.

And if that’s the case I think probably the conditions set out in the Belfast Agreement would have been met.

I’m not saying they have been met.

But it’s a very different picture from two or three years ago, not least the outcome of the last election, which gave a majority in the Assembly to nationalist parties...

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Stephen Nolan: “Do you think it’s maybe credible that a vote maybe within the next year or so is on the cards? That in itself means people should start readying themselves and debating it and thinking about it.”

They certainly should be thinking about it.

Nobody should be saying ‘it can’t happen’. It could happen now.

And again remember: the condition for it are set out in the Belfast Agreement. We’ve already agreed to do it.

It’s not about the Secretary of State not feeling like it. If the conditions are met the Secretary of State is obliged, the Secretary of State it says shall put forward an order-in-council and the Prime Minister would obviously have to respect the need to do that.

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Stephen Nolan:“And finally Shaun, just help me with those conditions one more time. So the conditions are what?”

The conditions as I understand it is there has to be a consistent majority in opinion polls.

In other words, a wish that we became, the people of Northern Ireland, part of a united Ireland.

That could be quite a small one. But it would be a consistent majority.

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Secondly, is there a Catholic majority in the Census of Northern Ireland? And we’ve seen figures in the last week which suggest a majority – albeit narrowly now – of Catholics in Northern Ireland.

And thirdly and crucially, the Assembly is, by a majority, in support for a poll. Hard to see how a nationalist-dominated Assembly wouldn’t therefore find a majority in favour of a poll.


Here is what Annex A of the Good Friday Agreement has to say:

SECTION 1. (1) It is hereby declared that Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll held for the purposes of this section in accordance with Schedule 1.

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(2) But if the wish expressed by a majority in such a poll is that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland, the Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament such proposals to give effect to that wish as may be agreed between Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom and the Government of Ireland...


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 [below], 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 [News Letter’s emphasis].

3. The Secretary of State shall not make an order under paragraph 1 earlier than seven years after the holding of a previous poll under this Schedule.

Check out the News Letter’s coverage of the recent census results: