Irish Examiner view: More than a majority is necessary

A poll on Irish reunification
Irish Examiner view: More than a majority is necessary

If Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish National Party wins a majority in May’s Holyrood elections it will energise discussions around a reunification referendum in Ireland. Picture: David Young/PA Wire

Nicola Sturgeon’s promise that the Edinburgh parliament will facilitate a referendum on Scottish independence if her Scottish National Party wins a majority in May’s Holyrood elections energises discussions around a reunification referendum in Ireland. 

Those talks will intensify further, if, as is anticipated, the SNP is given a mandate equal to that promise. There are, however, significant differences in the rules of engagement. Ms Sturgeon is free to offer Scots a vote on their future, despite Westminster’s opposition. That latitude is not available to Stormont’s politicians. 

Constrained by the Good Friday Agreement, they can only wait for the Northern Ireland secretary to call a border poll. They, or at least some of them, may press for a vote, but the decision is not in their gift. Like so much of Northern Ireland’s democracy, it is a qualified, loaded thing. 

It is unlikely, too, that England and Wales would subsequently vote on Scottish independence as voters in this Republic would vote on whatever decision was reached by any Northern Ireland poll.

It may be sensible, and reassuring, to consider setting a requirement of, say, 66% of any future vote to endorse any new reality.

A decision on a border poll seems remote today, even if weekend polls found that more than half of those living in the North want a referendum within five years. Nevertheless, there is a gathering momentum — or a gathering storm, if you prefer. Recent comments from former British chancellor George Osborne that the North is “heading for the exit door” seem significant, especially if he was encouraged to offer that observation. 

Mr Osborne said the North was “slowly becoming part of a united Ireland” and most people in England “will not care”. 

Showing a level of perception some of his successors may, or at least should, envy, he wrote: “By unleashing English nationalism, Brexit has made the future of the UK the central political issue of the coming decade. NI is, for all economic intents and purposes, now slowly becoming part of a united Ireland. Its prosperity now depends on its relationship with Dublin (and Brussels), not London. The politics will follow.”

As the hard reality of Brexit, rather than Rees-Mogg’s happier-British-fish plámás, bites, Osborne seems to be stating no more than the pragmatic and obvious, despite the head-in-the-sand attitude of DUP leader Arlene Foster. 

How far and how soon that pragmatism might provoke the kind of change being considered is anyone’s guess, but contemporary events offer chastening examples of how any reunification poll might be given a legitimacy today’s winner-takes-all terms might deny it. 

Brexit was passed by a tiny margin of 4% — 48:52 — and the tightness of that decision was hardly commensurate with the train of events it provoked. The US is deeply divided, but almost equally — and unequally, because of its bizarre electoral rules. 

Such tight margins are not conducive to stability, much less success. Any eventual vote on reunification will be traumatic, volatile, and alive with threat. 

If a sizeable minority are, as changing demographics suggest they might be, pushed into an entity they reject, then chaos beckons. It may be sensible, and reassuring, to consider setting a requirement of, say, 66% of any future vote to endorse any new reality. 

That would also help avert the polarisation destroying Britain and threatening the US.

More in this section

Lunchtime
News Wrap

A lunchtime summary of content highlights on the Irish Examiner website. Delivered at 1pm each day.

Sign up
Revoiced
Newsletter

Our Covid-free newsletter brings together some of the best bits from irishexaminer.com, as chosen by our editor, direct to your inbox every Monday.

Sign up
Home Delivery
logo-ie

HOME DELIVERY SERVICE

Have the Irish Examiner delivered to your door. No delivery charge. Just pay the cover price.