When the Irish civil rights movement emerged in the United Kingdom’s colonial territory on the island of Ireland during the late 1960s, a common slogan on its placards and banners read “One Man, One Vote”. This was in reference to the decades old disenfranchisement of some northern nationalists under the unionist system of electoral gerrymandering; a form of legalised discrimination which denied the voting rights of some people while literally multiplying the voting rights of others. That disdain for democratic norms remains a defining characteristic of political unionism and explains its newfound enthusiasm for so-called “once in a lifetime” and “supra-majority” voting on the question of ending the UK’s unwarranted presence in the north-eastern Six Counties.
Last week’s speech to Queens University Belfast by Peter Robinson, the former leader of the hardline Democratic Unionist Party and First Minister in the disputed region’s peace-brokered executive, illustrates this new thinking, and has been hailed by some sympathetic pro-union or British commentators as a breakthrough moment in the north’s ongoing political logjam. However others have treated it with extreme caution. In particular, this aspect of his detailed statement has led to some alarm among northern nationalists:
Some say that republicans want a process towards a United Ireland and would therefore resist any move to provide stable political structures here. I don’t accept that. I do accept that the life of our Union with Great Britain is subject to the principle of consent and therefore it will be argued by some that we can only talk about a generational settlement. However, the vehicle for moving Northern Ireland from being part of the United Kingdom to being part of a United Ireland was never to be a step by step process or through incremental changes to Northern Ireland’s institutions and its characteristics. The mechanism for constitutional change was and is the principle of consent as exercised through a Border Poll.
I realise that even discussing this issue can cause some people to start clutching their chests. But perhaps it is time to consider the Border Poll instrument more closely and replace the existing deficient arrangements with provisions that make sense and are less threatening. It is because I am very confident about the likely outcome of a Border Poll that I feel now is the time to examine and reflect on the issue, particularly in light of the experience of the Brexit Referendum and its aftermath. If ending our membership of a common market or economic union requires years of negotiations – and a transition period – and has raised demands for a second referendum because voters had only determined to exit but had not given approval to the terms of exit, then how much greater would the argument be if there was a vote to change national sovereignty.
The outcome of the Brexit referendum should also have taught us another lesson – one clearly not learned by everyone – that if a single choice “yes” or “no” answer to a simple question on ending an economic partnership can stir such passion, division and disruption then those who see a Northern Ireland plebiscite as an aid to peace and stability understand little about human behaviour. The existing simplistic – majority of one – mechanism to deal with colossal constitutional change would be a recipe for chaos if it were ever to be activated. It is better to deal with the process that would be involved, when there is no reason to anticipate an outcome that obliges change, rather than having to tackle the issue on the fly if it was ever to be triggered in the future.
In this I am not, of course, talking about the nature and shape of the new state that would emerge if there ever was a vote to exit the UK. I am alluding to the need to agree a process for negotiations, timescales and not only the means of reaching agreement on all the particulars but also who would be involved in negotiating such an agreement. With those details settled, my own view, for what it’s worth, is that fixed generational Border Polls would be less divisive and disruptive of our local political process.
Off-the-record briefings by Peter Robinson’s allies have clarified his words, teasing out the likely rules and procedures governing any possible future change in the territorial status of the UK-administered Six Counties. These regulations would see the imposition of a legal restriction on the frequency of “border polls” or referendums in the contested area, fixed at intervals of once every twenty-five or thirty years. The polls in turn would require a two-thirds or 66% majority to pass; meaning even if 55% or 65% of the electorate in the north-east favoured the reunification of Ireland it could not happen. Through the ballot box, at least.
The sudden willingness of unionist leaders, past or present, to discuss the nature of any plebiscites held under the auspices of the all-party and intergovernmental Good Friday Agreement of 1998, comes down to one thing. The belief among senior figures in the pro-union minority on the island that Britain’s commitment to a likely “hard” Brexit, supported by the ultra-right DUP, will lead to a poll of some sort on the political future of the Six Counties, within the United Kingdom or within a reunited Ireland. A vote that unionists have no certainty of winning. Since that game now seems lost under the old rules, the new strategy is simple: change the nature of the game and the rules. No matter how great the risks.