Sam McBride: Few have yet realised the staggering complexity behind a border poll

Within hours of the EU referendum result being announced, Gerry Adams had demanded a referendum on Irish unity.

Saturday, 5th June 2021, 7:00 am
Not only would Irish unity not be simple – even holding a border poll would be remarkably complex. Photo: Paul Faith/AFP via Getty

Speaking at Stormont five years ago, the then party leader opportunistically said that a border poll was “a democratic imperative”. Five years on, the idea of a vote on removing the border is both more credible and being more seriously considered than has been the case for decades.

With deep discontent over Brexit, unionism in disarray, a growing Catholic population, an unpopular Conservative government in London and a widespread sense that Stormont is broken – perhaps irretrievably so – nationalists and republicans face uniquely propitious circumstances for putting the idea of Irish unity to voters.

And yet the prospect of an imminent plebiscite still seems highly unlikely. Now even republicans suggest it should not be held immediately because they are not yet ready.

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That principally relates to the form which a united Ireland would take, and represents an implicit acceptance that those most eager to see the border removed have not done the work necessary to put a convincing case to the public.

But last week a detailed academic study was published which examined how a border poll itself would work. The Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, based at University College London’s (UCL) Constitutional Unit, drew in 13 academics from various universities in the UK, Ireland and the US under the chairmanship of Dr Alan Renwick.

Their 272-page report is rigorous and fascinating, examining multiple areas never discussed in any of the often stale debates on the wisdom of holding a referendum on Irish reunification.

One of the academics’ most unsurprising recommendations was that it would be unwise to call a border poll without a clear plan as to what exactly would happen if people voted for a united Ireland. In simple terms: Don’t repeat the central mistake of Brexit by having a vote for an ill-defined concept which will lead to years of arguments and problems after the referendum.

Whatever one’s view of where Northern Ireland’s future will lie, that seems a sensible proposition – but one which inevitably delays a border poll by years, given the enormity of the work required.

The UCL report clarifies some of the implications of legal requirements in relation to how a referendum would operate. But it also highlights the vast grounds for political dispute in procedural terms even before the debate about a united Ireland itself.

Almost every aspect of the process is open to claims of bias or unfairness, and there is little evidence that the governments or political parties have given significant consideration to this.

A border poll would be held under the apparently straightforward provision in the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which states that “it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish, accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.”

But hidden behind that commitment are a plethora of unresolved questions, problems and contradictions. It is remarkable that there is so much ambiguity in the Agreement – and in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 which enacted the Agreement. Effectively, large parts of what might have been in the Agreement have been left to be negotiated nearer the time.

The question itself would be fought over. Should it be a yes/no question, or does that favour one side? Should it be a remain/leave question akin to the EU referendum? Should it be a lengthy question which sets out both options, or a simple “should Northern Ireland become part of a united Ireland’’, similar to the Scottish independence referendum? Or, if there is an agreed plan for a united Ireland, should the question refer to that in the way that the 1998 referendum question referred to “Command Paper 3883”?

But even getting to that point would require a decision by the NI Secretary of State to trigger a border poll. Contrary to Arlene Foster’s erroneous claim last year that this can only be done when it appears to the Secretary of State that nationalism would win the vote, a discretionary plebiscite can be called at any point.

However, where it seems likely that there would be a vote for Irish unity, the Secretary of State must call a referendum.

Yet the criteria for that decision are almost wholly opaque. The academics examined an affidavit by the then secretary of state Karen Bradley in 2018 and the court judgment in a failed case attempting to force her to set out a policy for when a vote must be called.

The academics found six primary sources of evidence that might be taken into account: votes in elections, seats won, Assembly votes, opinion polls and surveys, demographic data, and qualitative evidence of views in different parts of the community.

Discussing a vote by MLAs asking for a referendum, the academics said that even if unionists blocked that with a petition of concern, the Secretary of State vote “would need to take it very seriously” because this aspect of the Agreement is purely majoritarian. That interpretation effectively gives the Alliance Party the power to decide whether one of the criteria for calling a border poll has been met.

A second difficulty arises in determining whether it is likely that a referendum would be won by nationalism: The poll itself would be some time hence from the decision and sentiment would likely change as a result of the campaign. That could be taken into account, giving the Secretary of State remarkable latitude.

Perhaps the clearest evidence of support for Irish unity would be in polling. But this is particularly open to contradictions, with polling involving randomly-selected individuals – often interviewed face-to-face – producing far lower support for unity than those of online panels.

The academics said: “The overwhelming weight of expert scholarly opinion regards interview-based surveys based on probability sampling as the ‘gold standard’ for social research. Importantly for the current case, this approach is least susceptible to the risk of manipulation by anyone who might wish to skew the result.”

That led them to recommend that “high-quality interview-based probability samples are likely to be more reliable in giving evidence of attitudes across the population than samples from online panels”.

However, referring to evidence from the main local online polling company, LucidTalk, they said that “the strong track record of online polls means that they would need to be accorded some weight as well”.

The academics’ public consultation found sharp differences of opinion among unionists and nationalists even around some technical aspects of the process. They said: “It was striking that, while many nationalists and people identifying as neither nationalist nor unionist argued for the use of citizens’ assemblies in relation to the unification question, almost no unionists did so”.

Reuniting two countries which have been separate for more than a century would not be simple in any context. But the UCL report is a reminder of how staggeringly complex even the simple part of the process – running a referendum – would be.

With the far more challenging part for nationalism involving the hard work and compromise of crafting a compelling proposal for voters, the Union may be secure for longer than some despairing unionists fear. But that will be despite, rather than because of, the shambolic state of unionist politics.

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