Words mean what the Secretary of State says they mean

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again

Every now and again there is a debate on Slugger, or indeed elsewhere, about when and why the Secretary of State might call a border poll. Demographic change, changing voting patterns, and the UK’s changing economic and political circumstances are all adduced to determine when that might be. Indeed, Sinn Féin have called on him to clarify his criteria for making a decision.

But it is a nonsense debate. The Good Friday Agreement is very clear: it is the Secretary of State of the day who must form the view that a vote for a United Ireland is “likely”. Everyone else can have a different opinion, and it doesn’t matter. The Secretary of State can be entirely unreasonable in their opinion. You can’t force someone to believe something even if the facts are clear. Ask any creationist in the DUP.

Basically, the GFA is written in such a way as to give the UK government the final say – with some constructive ambiguity to let everyone else think they have some influence. Britain remains sovereign until the government decides otherwise… The current Secretary of State cannot tie the hands of a future SOS who might take a different view on the matter. Evidence of “likeliness” which might satisfy the current Secretary of State might not satisfy a future one, and vice versa.

The counter argument is that of course that while the SOS could deny the obvious even if Sinn Féin won an absolute majority, it would be a) insanely unlikely, b) bring huge international pressure and c) go against the attitude of the British Governments since 1922. London governments have been consistent that they are happy to see Ireland reunited but that they won’t coerce NI to do so. The decision is Northern Ireland’s, and no UK government would dare to block it.

Really? Have we have never known UK governments to behave irrationally? Would a Reform led UK government ever be happy to see Northern Ireland go under any circumstances? Were local wishes paramount when Britain decided to divest itself of its colonies, or were military, political and economic strategic imperatives decisive? UK governments have been known to act for their own benefit and for governing parties to act for short term political advantage.

On the other hand, there has been remarkable consistency on the border issue across all UK governments for 100 years. How would it benefit Labour to be obtuse if a clear likelihood of reunification appears? But would the same apply to all future possible governments? Has Brexit not marked a fundamental change in the nature of UK politics even Labour is reluctant to reverse?

The bottom line is that we are into the realm of future political speculation here, and many different futures are possible. The UK Government retains the discretion to call a referendum on any topic at any point and for any reason – something which various unionists have sometimes suggested could be used to confirm support for the Union.

For instance, the UK government held the Brexit referendum in Northern Ireland  but over-rode the result in Northern Ireland because it was held on a UK wide basis. You could argue this broke the Good Friday agreement which gave Northern Ireland the right to self-determination and provided for ongoing deeper north south cooperation.

But that right is specific to the right to formally reunify with Ireland. Only a border poll has a specific requirement to be held only if the Secretary of State deems it likely to be passed, and can only be held, at most, once every seven years. It is, however, binding on the UK government as a whole. The rest of the UK has no say on the matter.

At the end of the day the UK government is sovereign and has the power to do what it wants, even to the point of breaking with long held policy traditions and flouting international law. The question is: What are its self-perceived interests and what price it is prepared to pay?

Hence the anxiety, in nationalist circles, to try and get a Secretary of State to commit to some future date, or at least  specify what criteria he will apply in making his decision. There is little confidence that future Secretaries of State will always act in good faith based on fair criteria. Would a majority vote in favour in the Assembly be enough? How do we define “likely”?

I will leave the last word to Humpty Dumpty:

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

And in this case, the master is the UK government of the day.

But then again, the nursery rhyme has often been interpreted as having a hidden meaning where Humpty Dumpty is the King, the wall is his reign and fight to preserve power, the fall is his defeat, and ‘All the king’s horses and all the king’s men’ is the army that failed to prevail.

Nothing lasts forever.

I wish to acknowledge the comments/contribution made by other Slugger members on an earlier draft of this post, but take full responsibility for the views expressed therein.

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