In a recent contribution, Peter Wilson conducted a post-mortem of the 2016 Brexit referendum. From this post-mortem, he suggested a number of lessons that could be learned and applied to a future border poll. Mr Wilson's proposals are very thoughtful and sincere however I feel that a response is necessary. These proposals would have big implications for the conduct of a border poll and would probably prove controversial. To that end, I will briefly revisit the Brexit referendum before responding to each of Mr Wilson's proposals.
The Brexit referendum of 2016 was plagued by a myriad of problems. One of the most central problems, from which many others originate, was the failure of the Cameron administration to provide a detailed, concrete plan of what Brexit would actually entail prior to the referendum. In other words, they put the cart before the horse. As a result, Brexit could be whatever voters wanted it to be, a veritable land of milk and honey. I don’t doubt that people who voted for Brexit did so sincerely with the hope that it would make life better for them and their families. The fault lies with those who exploited this hope for personal and political gain.
One of the main lessons to be learned from the Brexit referendum is that planning and preparation for a united Ireland should be conducted and communicated to the public in advance of a border poll. Consequently, people will know precisely what they are voting for and the debate will be grounded in facts rather than slogans. It is the responsibility of the next Irish government to begin this planning and preparation in earnest in order to avoid the pitfalls of the Brexit referendum in a future border poll.
Regarding Mr Wilson's proposals for a border poll, it is perhaps best that I first cover the areas where we agree. Like Mr Wilson, I believe that the debate around Irish unity (and indeed any debate) should be respectful and constructive. Too often the debate around Brexit, both before and after the referendum, descended into vitriol and mudslinging. This is something that we should all strive to avoid in a border poll campaign. I believe that engaging in sincere discussion and truly listening to each other are among the best means of achieving consensus.
I also agree with Mr Wilson that the franchise should be extended to young people aged sixteen and seventeen. This is already the case in Scotland and now Wales. Young people have a stake in our society and should have the right to vote, not only in a border poll but in every election that takes place in Ireland. The arguments for this are well rehearsed so I won’t repeat them here.
Now we turn to Mr Wilson’s other proposals. One of these proposals is that a supermajority of at least 60% should be required for a pro-unity outcome. This is not a new argument but it always encounters the same fundamental problem – it is undemocratic. A threshold of 50% plus one ensures that a referendum is fair and democratic. Once you begin altering this threshold one way or another, the process loses all legitimacy. It unfairly raises the standard for achieving a united Ireland while simultaneously lowering the standard for remaining in the Union. Why should at least 60% of votes be required for uniting the island but only 40% for keeping it divided? Under this proposal, a majority of 59% could vote for a united Ireland and still be denied this outcome. It should be abundantly clear that this is not acceptable in a democratic society.
Mr Wilson suggests that this proposal is necessary to validate a pro-unity outcome and protect the peace process. However, I would argue that this proposal would likely be rejected by a large section of the public, namely nationalists and republicans. It would create suspicion that the goal posts are being shifted as the debate around Irish unity gains traction. I believe this would inflame tensions rather than abate them. There is no doubt that we should strive for the largest possible majority for a united Ireland, but the fact remains that a threshold of 50% plus one is the only fair, legitimate, and democratic basis upon which to conduct a border poll.
Mr Wilson also proposes that a border poll should require a second, confirmatory referendum. He draws this conclusion from the experience of the Brexit referendum. However, the rationale for a second Brexit referendum was based on the fact that the original referendum was conducted without any detailed, concrete plan. If planning and preparation for a united Ireland are conducted in advance of a border poll, a confirmatory referendum would be redundant.
This proposal encounters a number of issues. Firstly, it’s hard to square with the Good Friday Agreement. The agreement states clearly that the Secretary of State for the North must call a border poll when he or she believes that a majority is likely to vote in favour of a united Ireland. This is the only criterion, which must be followed by a border poll. A second referendum after a border poll does not feature in the agreement.
One must also bear in mind that a border poll in the North will require a concurrent referendum in the South. If there are two referenda in the North, does this mean that there must be two referenda in the South as well? Once again, this would set an unfairly stringent standard for a pro-unity outcome. For a pro-unity outcome to succeed, it would need to achieve a majority in four separate votes, whereas it would need only fail to achieve a majority in one of these votes in order to fall. This proposal would likely be rejected by the public.
It would be remiss of me not to offer an alternative to these suggestions. I firmly believe that the next Irish government must make planning and preparation for a united Ireland a priority. As a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish government has a responsibility to make the necessary preparations for constitutional change. This process could include the formation of an all-party Joint Oireachtas Committee to publish a white paper on Irish unity, the creation of a junior minister for Irish unity within government, and an all-island forum or citizens’ assembly for people from all backgrounds to discuss and debate what a united Ireland should look like. Crucially, this information should be communicated to the public so that no one is left unaware of what re-unification will entail.
Steps can and should be taken north of the border as well. As Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis should publish the criteria upon which he will base his decision to call a border poll. This will improve accountability and prevent him or future ministers in his role from neglecting their responsibilities under the Good Friday Agreement. In addition, it is incumbent upon each of us as citizens to engage with one another on this issue with mutual respect. The debate around Irish unity will not go away by ignoring it and we have a responsibility to be informed and involved, regardless of one’s political persuasion or constitutional preference.
While I may disagree with some of Mr Wilson's suggestions, I am encouraged to see that people are engaging in the debate about a border poll and the constitutional future of our island. These discussions need to happen and it is essential that we listen to each other. Every person should have a say and no one should be excluded from the conversation. Only by working together can a united Ireland be a home for everyone.
Cormac Begley is a Sinn Féin member and activist.