There will be a poll on Irish unification within the next 6 years, by 2030, Mary Lou McDonald the Sinn Fein president told Sky News last Thursday – a few days after her party’s Michelle O’Neill became First Minister of Northern Ireland. She said: “Irish people, north and south, will make that call without coercion or impediment.” She also reached out to British viewers, saying: “Please respect our right to make that decision.”
Her comments came after the UK Northern Ireland Minister Steve Baker on ITV confirmed there would be a border poll in Ireland if opinion polls show an appetite for reunification, in answer to a question from ITV’s Robert Peston (before adding that the conditions are far from being met).
This is obviously a huge contrast with the UK government’s approach to Scotland leaving the UK.
One rule for Northern Ireland – another for Scotland?
The UK gov is not offering a referendum on independence for Scotland, despite the election of a pro-indy majority in the Scottish Parliament and recent polls showing support for independence up to 53%.
The Scottish people will not be stopped, and thanks to the Claim of Right they have the legal right to restore their independence - the next Holyrood election is likely to be a de facto referendum. But the UK has refused to support a poll for Scotland.
In contrast Northern Ireland and Ireland have the right to a border poll, every seven years if required, enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. Scotland, in contrast, has a recent ruling by the Supreme Court which gives Westminster the sole right to call a new independence referendum for Scotland – and on its own terms. There is no need for them to consult Holyrood or to look at polling.
But as Ireland moves towards unification, Scotland will be able to point to that example and it will lend more weight to calls for a new independence referendum.
Here are five points on Ireland’s constitutional future
#1 Northern Ireland is changing fast
The agreement to restore power sharing in Stormont recognises a new reality for Northern Ireland which for the first time has a Republican First Minister in Michelle O’Neill. She expects to see a border poll within a decade.
“There are so many things that are changing. All the old norms, the nature of this state, the fact that a nationalist republican was never supposed to be First Minister. That all speaks to the change,” she said in an interview with Sky News.
#2 The UK gov is working with only one side in NI
Former senior civil servant and research associate at the Constitution Unit Alan Whysall analysed the UK government’s Northern Ireland agreement ‘Safeguarding the Union’. He noted that it has been drawn up with only one party – the DUP.
“Previous Northern Ireland deals have generally come about after negotiation with all main political parties and have at least nodded to different aspirations. Governments in the past, even if they expressly favoured maintaining the Union, have at times sought to remain even-handed. This deal, though, has been essentially the product of a private discussion between London and one party. And everything about the document, starting with the title and cover, is partisan in tone… the process and especially the tone sit uneasily with the commitment in the Agreement that the government will exercise its power ‘with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions’. A government that was concerned about its future capacity as an honest broker might have conducted itself differently.”
Whysall writes that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland alone has the legal power to call a border poll. “Some will question whether this [agreement] suggests that judgement will be reached with an open mind.”
#3 Brexit split the pro-Union vote
Last year a poll showed overwhelming support for the EU on both sides of the NI border, with 88 per cent of people in the Republic and 79 per cent in the north advocating membership of the bloc. Since Brexit, more Irish passports than UK passports have been issued in Northern Ireland each year.
In Northern Ireland, Brexit split the Unionist vote. Around 40% of Northern Irish people who identify as Protestant did not support Brexit, and about a third of those who identify as Unionist. The province overall voted to remain in the EU. It was that split that handed victory to Sinn Fein in the last Stormont election.
Most people in Northern Ireland want to see the country have good trading links with both the EU and the UK. The DUP (and the UK government) are focused on only one side of that balance – trade with the UK. That stance could trigger more issues with Brussels and that could alienate moderates and young people.
#4 The UK gov’s partisan approach could hasten the speed of change
The Agreement says that: “We believe that… Northern Ireland’s future in the UK will be secure for the decades to come and as such the conditions for a border poll are unlikely to be objectively met”.
But although current polling does show a majority in NI for remaining part of the UK, it also reveals that as in Scotland, support for the Union is much greater in the older generation. In Ireland, 57% of younger people support Irish unification and that there is a moderate centre which could be swayed either way.
More Northern Irish people expect to see a united Ireland within 10 years. A survey published last summer showed close to half (45 per cent) of people think there will be a united Ireland within the next ten years, whereas 39 per cent believe the region will remain in the UK, with 16 per cent saying they don't know.
#5 Unification would be likely to trigger large-scale investment from both the EU and the USA
Unification is likely to create new opportunities for Northern Ireland in terms of its ability to grow the economy and create jobs.
A report by the think tank Ireland Future suggests unification would be likely to trigger large-scale investment from both the EU and the USA. The EU invested heavily in supporting Germany’s unification process. The USA’s Irish diaspora would be keen to see new Ireland make it. This investment could help unleash Northern Ireland’s huge productivity and development potential.
Northern Ireland’s economy is doing well compared to where it has been for many years - a huge underperformer within the UK. But it lags behind Ireland, one of the fastest growing economies in the EU.
Northern Ireland is no longer the Protestant majority state that was created to be a century ago. Most people in the area, especially young people and moderates, believe that they are on a trajectory towards unification and want it to be a success.
The UK government is overly focused on working with the Unionist parties and that is likely to hamper it in its efforts to reach out to the rest of the Northern Irish population.
As Ireland moves towards its united future, Scotland should work to build strong relationships with both Stormont and Dublin. Independence supporters on both sides of the Irish Sea can work together.