With weeks remaining until the 29 March deadline for a deal on Brexit, there is speculation that failure to reach agreement will result in increased momentum for a referendum on Irish unification under the Good Friday Agreement. Several Cabinet Ministers in Theresa May’s government are reportedly seriously concerned about the prospect, with one describing it as ‘very real’. Another has expressed concern that the British government risks ‘sleepwalking into a border poll’. Such a referendum would, however, be unlikely to succeed at the present time.
The 1998 Belfast Agreement (Good Friday Agreement) sought to end decades of sectarian conflict, known as the Troubles, in Northern Ireland and Ireland’s border counties, and established a process for peace and reconciliation. The agreement recognised the right of the people of Northern Ireland to determine its status, as well as the right of the Irish people to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of ‘consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South to bring about a united Ireland…’. Under the agreement, Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom, unless a majority of the people voting in a poll expressed a wish that that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland. The agreement also resulted in the dismantling of the hard border which had divided the island and the normalisation of security arrangements in Northern Ireland.
The recent rejection of Theresa May’s Brexit deal by the House of Commons and ensuing uncertainty has highlighted the difficulties which a no-deal and/or hard Brexit would pose for both the UK and Irish governments. A key concern is that no deal or a hard Brexit could potentially breach the Good Friday Agreement, especially if it resulted in a return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. There is also the prospect of a resurgence of sectarian conflict and violence if the current border arrangements are changed.
Both the UK and Irish governments have indicated their commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister ) Leo Varadkar has been steadfast in his opposition to a return to a hard border. The so-called ‘Irish back-stop’, which was part of the May deal negotiated with the EU, would have provided a mechanism to ensure an open border and protect key provisions of the Good Friday Agreement.
With no agreement on a Brexit deal in prospect, the idea of a possible referendum on Irish unification has been mooted, championed by the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein. Despite media speculation, it is doubtful that the majority of Northern Ireland’s voters would approve a change in its status at this time. While approximately 56 per cent of Northern Irish voters voted Remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum, the population remains predominantly Protestant and, as such, unlikely to support a referendum or vote in favour of Irish unification. Recent polls have shown that, while support for Northern Ireland remaining in the UK has fallen in the wake of Brexit uncertainty, a majority remain in favour of maintaining the status quo.
In May 2018, researchers based at Queens University Belfast conducted a study of the views of approximately 1,000 people in Northern Ireland on Brexit and related issues, including a referendum on a united Ireland. The study found that, while there was substantial support among Catholics in Northern Ireland for a referendum, only 21 per cent of the total population would vote in favour of a united Ireland. 50 per cent would vote to remain in the UK, with the remaining 29 per cent indicating they were either undecided or did not know. It also found that Catholic opinion was divided: 42 per cent would vote in favour of a united Ireland and 21 per cent would vote to remain in the UK, with the remainder of participants indicating they did not know or would not vote.
Both Catholic and Protestant participants in the Queens University study also expressed concern that the holding of a referendum would lead to sectarian violence and instability. Despite the relative success of the Northern Ireland peace process, sectarian tensions and well-founded security concerns remain, as recently highlighted by a car bombing in Londonderry days after Theresa May’s Brexit deal was defeated. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) cautiously attributed the incident to the New IRA, a dissident republican group. PSNI crime statistics show that, while there has been a long-term decrease in sectarian violence, it remains a serious concern. The International Fund for Ireland (IFI), established by the British and Irish governments in 1986 to promote peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the border counties, has also highlighted ongoing political and security challenges which threaten the peace process. For example, in its 2016-2020 strategy, the IFI warned that ‘increasing community tensions and rising paramilitary activity by those opposed to the political settlement [threatened] the extraordinary progress that has been made’.
Mainstream political parties in Ireland are cautious about the idea of a referendum on Irish unification at the present time. While Sinn Fein continues to campaign for Irish unity, other Irish political parties are more circumspect, with Ireland’s Fine Gael – which leads the ruling minority government coalition – carefully articulating its position as sharing ‘our national aspiration for territorial unity’, based on consent and majority . Opposition party Fianna Fail is also cautious, describing discussion on a united Ireland as premature. Influential Irish political commentators also point to the risks of calling a border poll in the current circumstances, with one warning that Ireland should not let ‘the follies of Brexit railroad us into a return to a pre-1998 Irish nationalism’, which cost more that 3,500 lives during the Troubles.
While polls and political commentators may not represent what might happen on the day in the event of a border poll, it would be a foolhardy politician to call for a referendum on Irish unity post-Brexit, deal or no deal.
Dr Adler is a former Ambassador to Ireland and senior career officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.