The impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland was dismissed by many Leave campaigners elsewhere in the UK as improbable. However, explains Prof Christine Bell, the speed with which Sinn Féin moved to trigger a poll suggests that the party with the most to gain may also have the least to lose by the gamble.
Brexit was not carried in Northern Ireland – 55.7 % voted to remain. However, to the extent that the population was divided, very unfortunately this appears to have been significantly on sectarian lines. The constituencies that voted for Brexit were those in which DUP and Ulster Unionist parties were dominant.
However, early on the morning following the vote, the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness (Sinn Féin) – announced that there should be a border poll.
What is this and how could it happen? Unlike Scotland, there is provision for a border poll in Northern Ireland Act 1998 (NIA). Section 1 of the Northern Ireland Act provides that Northern Ireland cannot cease to be part of the United Kingdom unless a majority of the people vote otherwise in a poll, in which case the UK parliament is obliged to give effect to that poll (so unlike Brexit or Indyref, there would be a legal requirement on the UK Parliament to implement, rather than just a political one). Provision is made for the poll in Schedule 1 of the NIA and provides that the Secretary of State must exercise the power to provide for a border poll ‘if at any time it appears likely to him [sic] 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.’
Although no criteria are set out for the basis on which the Secretary of State should evaluate that a majority of people would support United Ireland, certainly a Nationalist majority in elections where parties had a commitment to United Ireland would require a poll to be held (and could be triggered by Sinn Féin collapsing the Executive), and arguably clear and consistent opinion polling that a majority were in favour of United Ireland could also be argued to trigger the Secretary State’s duty to hold a referendum, as she has apparently conceded.
Would the Republic of Ireland have a say? One complication is that although the legal requirement is for a referendum in Northern Ireland, there are strong arguments – based on the international legal concept of self-determination (Ireland could not be forced to reunite against the will of those in the current jurisdiction of Ireland), and on the precedent of the all-Ireland vote on the peace agreement that underpins the Northern Ireland Act itself (which took place simultaneously North and South and required a majority in both jurisdictions), that a simultaneous vote should take place in the Republic of Ireland. And this is something that an Irish government might be minded to require and put in place, were a border poll triggered in the North.
Would United Ireland Referendum be likely to be successful? Polls undertaken by BBC and RTE over a year ago suggested that United Ireland had only 30% support, but with only 43% supporting Union with UK, a significant figure 27% were undecided. This type of support would be unlikely to trigger a referendum, much less win one. However, significantly 12% of Protestants supported United Ireland in a population that is currently fairly evenly balanced between Catholic and Protestant – with a new emergent block of ‘others’ whose voting border preferences post-Brexit could be a very unknown quantity. Interestingly, 66% of those in Republic of Ireland wished to see United Ireland ‘in their lifetime.’
But these are strange times. Sinn Féin have never really reinvented as ‘civil nationalists’ along the lines of the SNP. If they or SDLP or an alternative constellation managed to ‘de-sectarianise’ support for United Ireland through a concept of civic and political belonging rather than ‘ethnic or religious belonging’ they might be able to appeal to the imagination of young voters – Catholic and Protestant - disaffected with Brexit and the political stagnation of Northern Ireland – a stagnation for which there has appeared no easy remedy. Similarly, a lot of Nationalists who were happy to just let things settle down and live with a united Northern Ireland, may find that the possibilities of new borders, new dissent, and being stripped of what is a strong European sense of identity, tip the balance. A consensus of Catholic support coupled with significant Protestant support perhaps boosted by disaffection with Brexit, could perhaps carry the day.
At other times, Sinn Féin may have had quietly heavy hearts as regards being pushed towards a border poll they could not be sure of winning. However, while they are a party of radical austerity in the South, they are the party of implementing austerity in the North – undermining their credibility as an electoral force both North and South. The loss last elections of heartland seats in West Belfast (Gerry Adams’ former seat) and another in Foyle, Derry, stand as testament. Meanwhile a relatively successful election South of the border, resulted in being locked out of power by the two main parties in Ireland. Sinn Féin may therefore have little to lose and everything to gain in both jurisdictions in running even an unsuccessful referendum campaign. On the loyalist side, however, there have always been strong links with the English far-right, all of whom may feel empowered by Brexit and the idea that their day also has come.
During the 1916 rising, almost to the century – the phrase ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’ – a reference to the First World War, was key, and retains a certain grip on the Republican imagination. In fact, however, it may be more the case that ‘England’s opportunity will be Ireland’s difficulty.’