Chapter 2: The Bombshell…

Continued from Sovereignty 2024: My meeting with Rishi Sunak

My second private briefing in Chequers in August 2024 wasn’t all that different from the first. The rumour was that the PM was considering calling the general election for October. He didn’t want to have to

reconvene parliament to give Labour a platform to lambaste the Government. Better to get it over with quickly. The public wouldn’t start paying attention until September anyway, and memories of a paltry budget were fading.

The economic news wasn’t getting any better though. The economy was flat lining. The hoped for rise in consumer spending was being killed off by huge increases in mortgage repayments. House prices were falling at their fastest pace since the Second World War. Independent economic think tanks kept issuing reports saying that the British public had experienced the greatest drop in their standard of living since that war. Real household disposable income per person had fallen by 6% in the previous two years. Britain’s tax burden, measured as a share of economic output had risen to 38%, the highest it had been since the war, making the Tory claim to be the “low taxation party” somewhat hollow.

Wages hadn’t kept pace with inflation, and the cost of living had stayed stubbornly high, despite much higher interest rates. Higher interest rates had also choked off all marginal or risky investments. Businesses were cutting back on all but the safest and most lucrative investment project proposals. Strike activity had still not died down, resulting in a lot of disruption, bitterness, and division in society even after strikes had been ended. Crime rates were at a 20 year record high, and there was increasing lawlessness on the streets.

People were cutting back on all but essentials. The numbers in Britain using food banks had increased from 25,000 in 2008 to over 3 million in 2023. Over four million children were living in poverty. Over 270,000 people were officially classed as homeless, including 123,000 children. Seven and a half million people were on hospital waiting lists for routine treatments and of these 400,000 had been waiting for more than a year, the highest figures since records began.

I was fascinated to see how the PM would propose to address all these challenges. Of the five pledges Sunak had made on gaining the top job, he had failed to deliver on three – Growing the Economy, Reducing Debt and Reducing Waiting Lists. Progress had only been fitful on the other two – Halving Inflation and Reducing Illegal Immigration. Blaming the doctors and nurses strikes for the increased waiting lists wasn’t get much traction with the public. It was getting harder and harder to find some good news to sell to the electorate.

The briefing started with the PM in ebullient form listing countless initiatives the government was taking in all areas of public life. It seemed like one long list and certainly gave the impression of an energetic, focused, and determined government. But as reporters started digging into the details, they realised that many of the actions listed were repeats of earlier promises that had not been delivered and many had paltry budgets allocated to them. A few extra million here and there weren’t going to go far to address many of the problems itemised on the list.

There was lots of talk of public private partnerships, of the government working in close collaboration with charities, but little clarity as to why most businesses – many struggling to keep afloat – should suddenly become social service providers as well.

The briefing got more and more contentious as time went on with reporters getting increasingly querulous. Having almost gotten burned at my first briefing, I stayed well out of it, feeling that other reporters were addressing all the important issues and were more clued in on the details. They had been following these issues for years.

Almost by the way, towards the end of the allocated time, the PM mentioned he had an announcement to make in relation to Northern Ireland. The Northern Secretary of State had, after due consideration and careful analysis of all the evidence, come to the view that there was an increasing likelihood that a border poll would result in a vote for a united Ireland. Accordingly, in accordance with the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, he had decided to call a border poll to be held no later that 12 months from the date of this announcement.

There was a collective intake of breadth in the room, but no one said anything. People seemed dumbfounded. There being no specialist Ireland reporters in the room, I felt I had to ask a question: “Could the prime minister clarify, what new evidence had led the Northern Secretary to come this conclusion? After all it was almost 16 months since the last elections in May 2023 – the local elections in Northern Ireland – and while opinion polls since had shown increased support for Sinn Féin, there was no evidence that this would translate into a majority for a united Ireland.”

“I’m glad you asked me that”, he smiled, almost as if he had planted that question with me himself.

“The Secretary of State will issue a detailed statement later outlining the factors he has taken into account, which I understand include the trend in recent elections, opinion poll data, the census results, reduced popular support for the current devolved government arrangements in Northern Ireland, and some focus group research his department have been carrying out. It is important that we respect the democratic process in Northern Ireland and honour our international obligations under the Good Friday Agreement”.

The prime Minster then moved the discussion on to his new Industrial Strategy – which included tax breaks, state aids, grants for productivity improvements and worker re-training – before I could ask any follow up questions.

Towards the end of the briefing, I tried to raise the issue of whether the Irish government had been consulted on the decision to hold a border poll. The PM stated that “according to the Good Friday Agreement, it is the Northern Secretary, and the Northern Secretary alone who must come to a determination as to whether a border poll is likely to be carried. The Irish government has been informed and the Northern Secretary will issue a more detailed statement later”. Next question please – and he pointedly didn’t point to me.

All further questions on the topic by other reporters were re-directed to the Northern Secretary and the PM closed the meeting after answering a few desultory questions on other topics.

The briefing adjourned and some of the other reporters, those who knew of my previous assignment in Ireland, bombarded me with questions as to what this meant for Ireland and, in particular, for Northern Ireland. A scrum gradually formed around me as other reporters – not very well up on Ireland or Northern Ireland – became anxious to catch up with the conversation. The Press secretary had to hoosh us all out of the room saying it was needed for another important meeting.

Outside the building, and trying to be helpful, I said that I imagined the Irish government would be upset as they hadn’t asked for a border poll and probably didn’t want this distraction in the middle of the run up to their own general election, expected to take place in November. Sinn Féin would be delighted, however, I thought. They had been calling for a border poll for a long time and would love to fight the upcoming general election on that issue.

As far as Northern Ireland was concerned, I felt sure the decision would be welcomed in most nationalist circles as “clearing the air” after two and a half years of stalemate on devolution and that there was a feeling that Northern Ireland had to find some other way forward. However, I doubted the decision would be welcomed in most unionist circles as it was likely to be a very divisive and perhaps corrosive campaign.

I suggested that unionism had reconciled itself to Direct Rule as preferable to a Sinn Féin First Minister led Executive and were happy not to have to take responsibility for all the huge public service budget cuts the Secretary of State had been imposing. The Alliance Party would be sure to regard the timing as “unhelpful” I felt, although we must wait and see what the parties actually said.

Early reports of the briefing in all the media were dominated by the Northern Ireland announcement with little reference to all the other policy announcements made by the PM. In fact, because reporters couldn’t mention him by name – other than as a “senior government source“ – most of the reports actually named me and quoted my comments on the announcement. They did so without noting my qualification that “we must wait and see what the parties actually say” and gave the impression that I, a junior reporter from the Tribune, was in a position to authoritatively report on the reactions of all the parties.

Stupidly I had forgotten that the “no attribution rule” only applied to the PM. There was nothing to stop anyone naming me, especially as I had also been speaking outside the building and outside the immediate context of the briefing.

One newspaper actual led with the headline:

“Jeremy Watson says border poll campaign will be divisive and corrosive”.


It was only some way down the piece that the reader learned that the Jeremy Watson quoted was “the Ireland Correspondent for the Tribune”. It didn’t mention I had since been replaced in that role. I had to apologise to my successor.

The situation was exacerbated by the fact that there had been no reaction from the Irish government or the Northern Ireland parties to date, and thus my opinions were all that the non-Ireland specialist reporters had to go on and were thus featured prominently in their reports.

It later emerged that the Secretary of State was actually in Dublin informing the Irish government of his decision at that very moment, and that Northern Ireland parties were also only just being informed by a junior Northern Ireland Office Minister.

When I got back to the office, the news was all over the place. Those staff who actually knew me gave me the thumbs up, although some seemed to have a concerned look on their faces.

I found that my more senior colleagues were less than impressed by my sudden rise to media fame. Some asked, rather sarcastically, whether I was now the spokesperson for the Irish government, Sinn Fein, and all the Northern Ireland parties combined.

The Tribune’s senior foreign correspondent was particularly miffed. “I understand that, in your considered opinion, the Prime Minister should not have used his absolute discretion to call a border poll under the terms of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement?” he said, in a rather exaggerated formal posh accent. I apologised for having inadvertently strayed onto his patch. I didn’t even dare correct him that it was actually the Secretary of State who was empowered by the Good Friday Agreement to make that decision.

More ominously, my editor said nothing, other than “could I please confine my report of the briefing to the PM’s actual remarks”.

The water cooler gossip was that I had been played by the PM. I didn’t get too many sympathetic looks. Some pity, perhaps. More likely “who does he think he is?”

They were not wrong.

Official reaction followed swiftly from the Irish government and all the Irish and Northern Irish political parties. Thankfully, my fame (or notoriety) was short-lived.

That said, the reactions were much as I had anticipated.

The Irish government expressed regret that they had not been consulted or informed beforehand but welcomed the 12 month delay as there needed to be a lot of preparatory work done prior to the vote to ensure all voters knew exactly what they were voting for or against. There was no announcement of an Irish referendum which I presumed would be required to give effect to an all-Ireland government should the border poll be carried.

Sinn Féin complained that the government should have been doing all this preparatory work all along, and that they would make it a priority to rectify that as soon as they got into government. It was now imperative that the Irish government call the general election immediately so that the Irish electorate could have their say.

Most of the other parties agreed that the timing was unfortunate and that there should have been much more consultation and discussion before any announcement of the Secretary of State’s decision. The Alliance party felt that the announcement was ”unhelpful“ at this difficult time for Northern Ireland and that all communities must band together to avoid their differences being exploited by extremist parties. The Greens noted that any border poll campaign promises should include provision for a more integrated rail network throughout Ireland and that there should be no additional funds for motorways.

The DUP complained that this was one more example of the British Government betraying Northern Ireland, and that “the people” must show their disgust by voting for DUP candidates at the forthcoming general election. The time had come for Unionist Unity in the face of this existentialist threat to the Union.

The UUP agreed but stated that Unionist Unity did not mean every uniting behind the DUP. The time had come for unionists to spread their message to all the people of Northern Ireland as “we all have a stake in maintaining a peaceful and prosperous union”. “The UUP”, it claimed, “was best placed to unite all those who supported the Union”.

All independent analysts expressed their surprise that the Secretary of State should have come to his determination just before the general election – when much more up-to-the-minute hard information on voter preferences would have become available after the election.

Some reports suggested that it was actually an attempt to help the DUP get out their vote, and that the quid pro quo might be that the DUP would promise to return to the assembly. That suggestion was quickly quashed when the DUP made it clear that it was pointless even talking about returning to the assembly until the constitutional question had been finally settled.

The use of the phrase “finally settled” led some analysts to speculate that a secret deal had been done whereby the UK government would remove the Good Friday Agreement’s provision for repeat referendums (at a minimum of 7 year intervals) if the first referendum result was for a continuance of the Union. They also suggested that unionists had a better chance of winning a border poll sooner rather than later and that, once the issue was settled, the way was clear for an indefinite, long term return to Direct Rule, as devolution had clearly failed with “both sides” guilty of the failure to fully implement the Good Friday agreement.

However, it was never explained how a British government could change the terms of the Good Friday Agreement without the agreement of the Irish government, or tie the hands of Northern Ireland Secretaries for the indefinite future. Also, why did the DUP not welcome the announcement if they were so confident of winning the border poll?

I began to suspect that another private briefing had taken place on the Border poll announcement that I had not been invited to. All of the media reports seemed to be taking the same line and citing the same “senior government official”. My senior colleagues at the Tribune assured me that no such private briefing had taken place – at least not to their knowledge.

It later emerged that a briefing had taken place at the Foreign Office to which some reporters had been invited. Strangely, the Northern Ireland Office had little to say, other than issuing a lengthy formal statement detailing the reasons for the Secretary of States determination that a vote for re-unification was “likely”. It was the first time I had ever seen “focus group research” given as one of the reasons for a formal government decision.

In the days following, a number of opinion polls were published showing surprisingly high levels of support for the calling of the border poll in both in Northern Ireland and Britain in response to the question “Should the people of Northern Ireland be given the opportunity to express their views on union with Britain or Ireland?”

Well, doh! Who wouldn’t approve of that question when it was put to them like that! Especially independence supporters in Scotland.

What intrigued me was how quickly all these opinion polls were published. Normally it takes a couple of weeks to decide to hold a poll, schedule it with the market research agencies, agree a budget, agree the wording of the questions and the scope of the demographics to be included, collate and analyse the results, and publish the findings – usually spread out over a number of days to maximise the publicity the polling agency and the sponsoring media outlets got for the results.

The first polls showing widespread support for the government decision appeared in a matter of days following the government announcement. The decision became much less controversial after that. Apparently, government spokespersons were briefing that it was important to see past all the vested interests blocking progress and “let the people decide”. The government, it seemed, had lost patience with the Northern Ireland parties’ failure to implement devolution and a large majority of the public in Britain and Northern Ireland agreed with them.

Whether by chance or otherwise I was shortly afterwards “promoted” to the position of the Tribune’s Climate Change correspondent, a new position which the editor said they had been thinking of creating for some time. There would be no more tilting at windmills for me!

I wrote a final piece describing the government’s decision as reckless, without due regard to the sensitivities of the situation in Northern Ireland and driven purely by the government’s need to distract public attention away from their appalling economic record. Although the formal decision was couched in lofty terms about the Secretary of State’s duty to perform his function under the Good Friday Agreement “impartially”, having due regard for the evidence of changing attitudes and voting behaviour in Northern Ireland, with due respect for the democratic process, and with Britain having “no selfish strategic interest” with respect to Northern Ireland, the timing and manner of the announcement made it reasonable to assume that other factors were at play. I mentioned that saving £15 Billion on the Northern Ireland subvention could fund a lot of much needed social services in Britain.

To my surprise, the editor published my piece, describing it as my best piece yet, and wished me well in my new role. I think I could even detect a smile in his face.

Sure enough, and to no one’s surprise, the issue of the £15 Billion subvention soon became a central feature of the debate in England following the announcement of the General election a few weeks later. Analysts noted it was about twice as much as the much-hated net subvention to the EU which Brexiteers has made such play of saving.

Labour were wrong-footed. Soon they were being asked to explain where they would find the many Billions they needed to fund their election promises. Everyone knew where the Conservatives were proposing to find the money to fund their promises, although no Conservative spokesperson ever publicly averred it might come from the Northern Ireland subvention. Officially the Tories remained neutral on the Border poll and solemnly declared that they would respect the people’s vote.

When challenged that they were supposed to be the Conservative AND Unionist party, conservative spokespersons stressed they were all in favour of the Union, but only insofar as the people of Northern Ireland wanted it. Spokespersons noted a May 2022 statement issued by The Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, Prime Minister, which approvingly quoted the 1990 declaration by the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke, arguing that Britain had “no selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland. Boris Johnson had emphasized that that statement did not say “no strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland, – but “no selfish strategic or economic interest”. There had been no change in government policy. This was all about letting the people of Northern Ireland have their say.

When challenged as to why they weren’t offering a referendum to Scotland, their position was that that matter had been settled by the 2014 independence referendum, and that unlike Northern Ireland there was no internationally binding treaty obliging the UK to hold further referendums in Scotland, even if opinion polls indicated their might, from time to time, be a majority in favour of it. “Opinions polls come and go, but the constitutional settlement is permanent” was the official line.

Spokespersons also stressed that, other than in the specific case of the Good Friday Agreement, referendums were only advisory under the UK Constitution, and take place only at the absolute discretion of the government of the day. In their view Britain had had quite enough of referendums in recent times, and they didn’t propose to hold another one any time soon. This seemed to be a popular policy in England if the opinion polls were in any way accurate.

During the course of the subsequent election campaign, English voters got the impression that a conservative government would have the money to fund their election promises, whereas a Labour government might not.

Quite how the people of Northern Ireland might be persuaded to vote for a united Ireland and thus relieve the exchequer of this financial obligation was breezily passed over as a matter for the Irish to decide, although independent observers noted darkly that the swingeing cutbacks in Northern Ireland’s budget over the past two years might have been a preparation for just such an event, and there was some background talk that the Tories might be planning to escalate those cutbacks regardless of the border poll result.

There was much talk of cutting out “wasteful spending” and “unsustainable subsidies” in the Tory manifesto without any official spokesperson ever conceding that such references applied especially to Northern Ireland, although many inferred that that was indeed the case. “Waste is waste wherever it occurs” is all that the spokespersons would concede.

However, some reports noted that “the Northern Ireland health service cost far more, and delivered far less, than its counterpart in England, citing recent reports to that effect. This was, apparently, a general problem with public services in Northern Ireland.

Although Labour had supported the principle of a united Ireland by consent since the 1980’s, Labour leader Keir Starmer denounced the border poll decision as an “electoral stunt” designed to distract people from the governments catastrophic economic record. While pledging to respect the democratic will of the people of Northern Ireland, Labour would be campaigning in favour of the union. Labour stood for a proudly British United Kingdom.

He made the announcement flanked by unionist leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who looked incredibly pleased, and announced that “this showed that the British people are rallying behind the Union” and that “unionists would be supporting the formation of a Labour led government in the forthcoming election”.

Starmer’s announcement led to an almost immediate and damaging split between the left and right wings of the Labour party, with left wingers denouncing Starmer as “more conservatives than the Conservatives themselves”.

The charge struck a nerve, leading to angry exchanges between Starmer loyalists and most of the rest of the party. In vain Starmer noted that even the Irish government hadn’t called for a border poll, and that almost the only people welcoming it were Sinn Féin and dissident republicans engaged in terrorist activities (although there had been no significant recent dissident terrorist activity).

Starmer even visited Dublin to sympathise with concerns that the border poll had been called “without due consultation and coordination with the Irish government beforehand”.

It is not entirely clear his visit was welcomed by Dublin, however. Sinn Féin was quick to point out that while they had been successful in their campaign for border poll, the “conservative parties in Ireland were siding with the unionists, and that the people of Ireland had to be given an immediate opportunity to show whose side they were on.”

Apparently both the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste were indisposed at the last moment, and Sir Keir was met by my old friend , the Junior minister, Neale Richmond, instead. I tried to contact Neale for a comment, but he didn’t return my calls. It seems my previous very positive interview with him had left no lasting impression on him.

Opinion polling and focus group research in England found that the public largely agreed with Starmer’s claim that this was an electoral stunt designed to distract from the government’s catastrophic economic record. But they also didn’t seem to care over much as to why the government had made the announcement. They were intrigued by the possibilities it opened up for increased public spending in England, and they generally approved of the Conservatives plans to increase spending on the NHS, housing, tax breaks, and programmes to eliminate poverty.

Faced with a newly united Conservative party and a divided Labour party, opinion polls showed a significant swing back to the Tories in the next few weeks.

In my, somewhat cynical, view, the border poll announcement had already served its purpose. It had changed the electoral conversation to something more people could agree with and less damaging to the Tories. The fact that the border poll wasn’t due to take place until long after the general election meant that it could now be kicked into the long grass. If the Tories lost the election, it would be somebody else’s problem in any case.

Opinion in Ireland, both North and south, was not quite so sanguine.

/To be continued: Chapter 3: The 2024 UK General Election


Discover more from Slugger O'Toole

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

We are reader supported. Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger. While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.