Both PM’s deal and no deal push up chances of united Ireland

by Quentin Peel | 14.01.2019

Karen Bradley has been on a steep learning curve since she was appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland just 12 months ago. Last September she was mercilessly mocked when she confessed that when she took the job she didn’t understand that in Northern Irish elections “people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties, and vice versa”.

Her understanding of the consequences of that deep communal divide seems to be getting better, at least as far as Brexit is concerned. Last week she warned her Cabinet colleagues that a border poll to reconsider the constitutional status of the province would be “far more likely” if the UK crashed out of the EU without a Brexit deal, PoliticsHome reported.

She is very probably right. A “Cabinet source” was quoted saying that Sinn Fein “would demand it straight away”, and the Secretary of State “would have no choice but to call one”.

But what she omitted to say was that even with Theresa May’s withdrawal deal, the constitutional future of the province may be called into question, sooner rather than later.

It is part of Bradley’s job to closely monitor public opinion in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement which brought peace to the province in 1998 requires the Secretary of State to call such a border poll “if it appears likely… that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the UK and form part of a united Ireland.”

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Up till now, the UK government has been adamant that the condition had not been met. It said so in 2016, just after the referendum. But the threat of Brexit has changed the arithmetic and the dynamics. The most recent opinion survey in Northern Ireland, conducted in early December by the Belfast-based pollster LucidTalk, asked respondents how they would vote in a border poll in three different circumstances:

  • If there were a “no deal” Brexit crash-out of the EU: 55 % would either certainly or probably vote for a united Ireland, against 42 % certainly or probably opting to stay in the UK.
  • If there were a Brexit based on Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement: the outcome would be wide open with 48 % opting to stay in the Union, and 48 % wanting Irish unification.
  • Only if Brexit doesn’t happen, and the UK stays an EU member, is there a clear majority for remaining part of the UK: 60 % in favour, against 29 per cent for a united Ireland.

On the whole, the vote splits clearly on tribal lines: 80 % of unionists would opt for the UK even with a no-deal Brexit. 93 % of nationalist/republicans would opt for Irish reunification.

What is clear from the poll is the crucial swing vote of “neutrals” who are neither unionists nor nationalist/republicans. If there is no deal, only 14 % would vote to remain in the UK. If there is Brexit on May’s terms, that rises to 29 %. Only if the UK as a whole opts to stay in the EU do 58 % of the “neutrals” (Alliance, Greens, etc) vote in favour of the Union.

By backing Brexit at all costs, including a no-deal Brexit, the Democratic Unionist Party has enhanced the likelihood of a border poll in the foreseeable future. In the 1970s, such a poll was strongly supported by unionists and opposed by republicans, because it was clear the Northern Ireland population would opt to stay in the UK. Today the tables are turned, with republicans in favour and unionists opposed.

Brexit in any form has endangered the Good Friday Agreement, and given new life to identity politics in Northern Ireland. And until it is resolved, there is scant chance of reviving power-sharing at Stormont. What’s more, it has also put the question of Irish unification firmly back on the agenda.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe