Chris Heaton-Harris: Border Poll to be called within a year

Following on from recent polls which showed a majority would vote for a United Ireland if the Irish Government set out clearly how Northern Ireland would be better governed under Irish Sovereignty, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has announced that “the minimum threshold for a border poll has been met” and that “accordingly, I am announcing that a border poll will be held not later than March 31st. 2025”.

Unionist politicians have criticised the decision, saying that government policy should not be determined by mere opinion polls, and noting that Mr. Heaton-Harris could have waited until after the British general Election when voter preferences could be much more objectively measured. Acting DUP leader Gavin Robinson condemned the move as “an electoral stunt” designed to appease nationalist sensibilities after the British Government refused to provide further funding for the re-building of Casement Park.

Reaction in London has been more mixed with some observers noting that the move will be a welcome distraction from the Conservative government’s economic troubles, with the economy stagnating and polls showing a Conservative melt-down in voter intentions ahead of the general election.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, has struggled to find the financial headroom to enable the Government to deliver the tax cuts deemed essential to stopping the Conservative party’s slide into electoral disaster. The potential transfer of the Northern Ireland Barnett subvention to the Irish government would save the British government a potential £15 Billion and rising cost per annum and has been greeted positively by the markets.

President Biden has issued a statement welcoming the move as a long overdue opportunity to right “a historic wrong” and saying the United States would do all it could to facilitate a smooth transition in the event of Northern Ireland voting to end its “divisive” partition from Ireland.

Speaking as he was boarding Air Force One, the President appeared to confuse the Irish and American civil wars when he noted that it was time the Republicans admitted defeat. “Democrats shall prevail over the forces of tyranny and rancour the world over” was his only comment when it was pointed out to him that the Republicans in the USA had won the American civil war and that republicans in Ireland were in favour of a United Ireland.

Reaction in Dublin has been much more muted, with senior figures privately expressing dismay at the suddenness of the decision and saying that the Irish Government was not consulted beforehand. Officially the line is that it is “entirely a matter for the people of Northern Ireland to decide on their constitutional future” and that the Irish government will abide by the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Precisely what this will mean in practical terms is unclear, as the Good Friday Agreement is silent on what will happen in the event of a Border poll being carried. Given that Articles 2 and 3 claiming jurisdiction over Northern Ireland were removed from the Irish Constitution as part of the Good Friday Agreement, further changes will be required to “reincorporate Northern Ireland into the national territory,” one senior official noted, on condition of not being named.

However, there is no clarity on whether the Strand 1 institutions of the GFA (the assembly and Executive) will be retained and whether Northern Ireland will thus remain a distinctive political entity and territory within a United Ireland, either permanently, or as a transitional measure.

The same official noted that the GFA has no “sunset clause” and will thus remain in force even after a United Ireland is formally created, unless the British and Irish governments decide otherwise and jointly agree to amend the GFA accordingly. This means that the Strand Three institutions – British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference, the British–Irish Council, and the British–Irish Interparliamentary Body could continue to operate and ensure close cooperation between the British and Irish governments.

In any case, the principle of “parity of esteem” will continue to apply to both the unionist and nationalist traditions in Northern Ireland, he noted, and voters will continue to be able to vote for unionist parties in a United Ireland and advocate for continued links with Britain, if that is their wish. The main difference is that Northern Ireland political representatives will sit in the Dáil rather than in Westminster and have the opportunity to participate in Irish governments.

Privately there was dismay in Fianna Fail and Fine Gael party circles. One party insider noted that “The British Government may as well have handed the next Irish Government over to Sinn Féin” noting that an Irish general election is also due before the deadline set by the Northern Ireland Secretary of State. “That election will now be fought entirely on Sinn Féin’s home turf, and they will be able to claim they are the only major party organised on an all-Ireland basis and thus capable of governing the entire Island.”

A spokesperson for the EU, Peter Stano, would not be drawn to comment on matters “entirely within the purview of one member state” although he did note that the EU had already agreed that Northern Ireland would become fully part of the EU as part of Ireland in the event of re-unification. “The EU stands ready to fully support a member state should there be a democratic change in its constitutional or territorial make-up, and we note that the EU also played no role in the re-unification of Germany in 1990.”

Peter Stano responded with a terse “no comment” when pressed whether re-unification would help engender more positive EU/UK relations before elaborating that the EU is always “on the look-out for opportunities to improve relations with neighbouring states, especially, for example, with Russia, if the Russian invasion of Ukraine were to come to an end.”

Being put in the same category as Russia stunned some British reporters present at the briefing, and Peter Stano was quick to clarify that “no comparison between the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the British occupation of Northern Ireland was intended.” He was then forced to clarify further that “it was not intended to characterise British Sovereignty in Northern Ireland as an occupation” even though that was the terminology originally used.

The Labour Party did not respond to requests for comment, saying that Sir Keir Starmer would respond in Parliament in due course. Privately, some party insiders were dismayed that the decision would be a “a shot in the arm for the SNP and would put paid to Labour’s hopes of major gains in Scotland.” However, they also noted that the decision showed “just how desperate the Tory Government had become to distract from their domestic woes, and that Labour would not take the bait and allow itself to be distracted.”

When asked how they thought the people of Northern Ireland would feel about being regarded as “a distraction” they countered that “the general election was about electing a government for the United Kingdom as a whole, and that people everywhere would find it odd that a supposedly “Conservative and Unionist Party” should be facilitating the break-up of the United Kingdom.” However, they refused to be drawn on how the Labour party would campaign in any such Border Poll beyond saying that it was” a matter for the people of Northern Ireland themselves,” and noting that “we have no direct representation there.”

Independent observers noted that the border poll would not be held until after the British general election and that the Secretary of State was effectively handing over the conduct and outcome of the border poll to the next British government to deal with. “Perhaps it is hoped that Labour will split on the issue and draw true conservatives back to the Conservative and Unionist Party”. They also noted that recent polling in England, Scotland and Wales had indicated that majorities in each country supported Irish re-unification, and that the Conservative government could be onto a vote winner on this issue.

Nigel Farage commented that this all arose from the “pigs’ dinner” the British government had made of Brexit and that “a Reform led government would soon put a stop to this nonsense.” “Only a fool could countenance the break-up of Great Britain as a truly great world power. Who would protect the people of Northern Ireland from invasion by the Russians if this crazy proposal were ever implemented?”

A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Office noted that the British Government had only recently issued a command paper on “Safeguarding the Union” which listed the many benefits of membership of the United Kingdom and explicitly committed the British Government to cease protecting the “misguided and divisive concept of an All-Ireland economy” as provided for in the Good Friday Agreement. “We will not be campaigning for a United Ireland either, and you can quote me on that!”

The Safeguarding the Union command paper (page 75) states that:

“As part of this reset, the Government will publish a series of papers over a period of two years that will evidence the mutual benefits of Northern Ireland’s place in the  Union, and identify steps to be taken to take it forward into the coming years. Published quarterly, these papers will go beyond high-level commitments to the Union and will instead explore the value of the Union in key thematic areas which will include: a. Education and skills; b. Health; c. Enterprise, innovation and technology; d. Defence and security; e. Culture and sport; f. A greener Northern Ireland; and g. Public services, pensions, and welfare.

To date no such papers evidencing “the mutual benefits of Northern Ireland’s place in the Union” have been published, although it is expected that they will now be published in the context of the Border Poll campaign. An Irish government spokesperson, April O’Fualúaigh, would not be drawn on whether the Irish government will publish corresponding papers on “the benefits of a United Ireland” in due course.

Sinn Féin President, Mary Lou McDonald, was adamant that a Sinn Féin led government would put together a comprehensive programme for the government of Northern Ireland that would establish “beyond all reasonable doubt” that the people of Northern Ireland would be far better served under Irish Sovereignty. Echoing the language of the Command Paper she noted that “it was Partition rather than the all-Ireland economy that was a misguided and divisive concept which had led to the under-development of Northern Ireland.”

“Sinn Féin will promise everyone in Northern Ireland a peaceful, prosperous, and progressive future casting aside the chains of prejudice and poverty. Nobody should be fooled by unionist attempts to muddy the waters around the Irish sea border which marked the beginnings of a free and fair isle enjoying the fruits of European solidarity in the face of neo-colonial oppression. A new national holiday would be declared for April 1st. which would celebrate both the Easter Rising and the victory by papal forces led by William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne. History is written by the winners and we have a lot of writing to do!”


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