Border Poll or Bust?
Alan Whysall, former Northern Ireland office civil servant, now research fellow at the Constitution Unit at University College London, and denizen of Belfast, discusses the operation of border polls.
Alan talks about some of the main findings of the interim report of the UCL Working Group on the issue, the first in-depth investigation of how a Border poll might be held, and the processes before and after that might lead to a United Ireland. But the report doesn’t take the view that a majority for unity is imminent – so where does this leave politics in Northern Ireland? Can we avoid a prolonged stand-off on the border issue (and proxies for it around Brexit) while many of the gains of the Good Friday Agreement fracture?
Alan Whysall was, from 1995 until his retirement from the Northern Ireland office in 2015, closely involved with the Northern Ireland peace process. He is now Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Constitution Unit at University College London. He wrote a working paper on the implications of a border poll for UCL in 2019, which led to the creation of a working group, drawn from universities in Belfast and Dublin as well as UCL, to look at the issues more closely.
The (interim) report of the working group has now been published and is available from its website here. Alan has also published a number of blogs on the current political situation and how in that context we can take forward discussion about the future. They are here and here.
The group, collectively, is neither for or against a border poll, nor for or against a United Ireland. It looks chiefly at the processes around a poll: how should the Secretary of State decide whether he is required by law to call a poll (that is if he believes a majority of those voting would favour a United Ireland); and what political processes would need to be set up to establish the shape of the United Ireland. The Agreement gives little guidance on either the process, or the destination. The report sets out in detail the main issues that would have to be addressed.
But it does not conclude that a majority for unity is imminent. Some opinion polls suggest it is very near; other polls and surveys, however, showed markedly different results. Among voters, declared Unionist and nationalist parties are both well short of the majority: the centre ground will decide. What does this suggest for our politics? There is a clear risk that it will stagnate along the usual battlelines, with serious issues of decay in the social and economic fabric, and crumbling of public services, failing to get proper attention. But those problems have to be dealt with, whether Northern Ireland as part of the UK or a United Ireland: unity is not a universal solvent.
The Agreement once created a positive momentum and energy in Northern Ireland politics, sustained by the British and Irish governments working closely together. That has now stalled. Can it be revived – without prejudice to ultimate constitutional destiny?