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Brexit, border polls and Irish unity

2 May 2022

Sinn Fein activists calling for a border poll, stage a demonstration outsideStormont.

The recent period has seen a notable increase in the level of political discussion around the possibility of a united Ireland coming into existence in the near future.   More specifically it has centred on the possibility of a border poll that, if won, would mark the commencement of a transition towards a united Ireland.

Whilst proposals on what a united Ireland should look like, and how it should be brought about, have always been around in some form or other they have certainly taken on a greater prominence in the wake of the Brexit referendum (2016) and the formal withdrawal of the UK from the European Union (2021).  The assumption is that Brexit has fundamentally altered the dynamics of economics and politics within Britain and Ireland. The argument is that Brexit, by weakening the cohesion of the UK state and advancing the creation of an all-island economy, has made the achievement of a united Ireland a more likely prospect than before.  This - alongside claims around changing demographics and declining levels of support for unionist political parties - is the thrust of the argument being put forward by Irish nationalists for the imminence of a united Ireland and the necessity for a border poll.


On a superficial level such claims may appear to have some validity.  However, on closer examination a number of serious flaws are to be seen.  One of these is the assumption of where Brexit is leading.  The counter to the proposition that it is promoting Irish unity has already been provided by Irish nationalists themselves.  For a long period prior to the 2016 referendum Irish nationalists (most notably the SDLP’s John Hume) held to the schema that UK and Irish membership of the EU (formerly the EEC) from 1973 - and of the single market and customs union since 1992 - was integrating the island (“blurring the border”) and laying the foundation for the eventual unification of Ireland.   It was also claimed that membership of the EU provided the essential framework for the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, which again, by implication, pointed towards a united Ireland.  Indeed, the main argument from nationalists at the time of the referendum was that Brexit threatened to undo all of this.  Back in 2016 the warning was that Brexit would create divergence between north and south; now we are asked to believe that it somehow hastens integration!  There is a glaring contradiction here.

As a response, advocates of such an argument may point to the NI Protocol.  But in reality, the protocol (which covers only agricultural and manufactured goods) is a big retreat from what existed under EU membership.  It is also a retreat from the proposed Irish Backstop (which would have kept GB and Northern Ireland in the customs union and single market) that was conceded by the Irish government in order to achieve a Withdrawal Agreement.  With the British government now threatening to renege on the NI Protocol, there is a prospect of a hard economic border being re-established in Ireland.  While this scenario may not play out, it remains the case that the main tendency within Brexit is towards divergence rather than integration.  There is no foundation for claims that Brexit is an accelerator of Irish unity.

The dubious claims around Brexit are matched by those around demographics and polling (both opinion polls and elections).


One of the most consistent fall-back positions for Irish nationalism is demographic change: the belief that changes in the relative size of the Catholic and Protestant communities in the north will act as a spur towards constitutional change.   One objection to this approach is that it is thoroughly reactionary in that it accepts communal identity as the only regulator of politics in the north.  By implication change will only come about when Catholic/Nationalists are in a position to exert a numerical superiority over Protestant/Unionists.  At best this promotes political passivity and at worse feeds into sectarianism.  The other objection to the demographic argument is that it is not playing out as its advocates would expect.  Over the course of the last twenty years there has actually been a weakening of communal identity in the north.  In the most recent census (2011) there was, for the first time in the history of the northern state, the number of Protestants fell below 50%.  However, this was not accompanied by a significant rise in the percentage of people identifying as Catholic.  This figure increased by only one percent despite the predominance of Catholics amongst school age children.  This suggests a stabilisation of the communal composition of the north rather than one community being eclipsed by the other.  One of the main reasons for this is the growing number of people who are identifying as no religion or no stated religion. While still relatively small it is in this section of the population where significant growth has taken place.  Subsequent surveys have shown this trend to be strengthening and it is likely to be confirmed when the results of the 2021 census are released.

Elections and opinion polls

If there was a shift taking place on the question of a united Ireland you would expect it to be reflected in election results and opinion polls. Yet there is no evidence of this.   The constituency for a border would be the six counties of the northern state but within it there is no evidence of a rising tide of Irish nationalism and pro unity sentiment that would be the essential prerequisite even for the holding of a border poll, never mind a successful campaign.   The results of elections over the past twenty years reveal the nationalist share of the vote struggling to get over 40%.  In the 2003 Assembly elections nationalist parties received 40.5%.  In the most recent Assembly election of 2017- which was held on the back of the RHI scandal - they received 40%.  Just a year earlier the nationalist parties share of the vote for the Assembly fell by 5% to the mid-thirties.  It might be argued that these elections weren’t held when Brexit was such a prominent issue but in the most recent election to be held in the north - the UK general election of December 2019 - which was explicitly on the issue of Brexit - the nationalist vote again struggled to hit 40% with the combined Sinn Fein and SDLP vote share sitting at 38%.  Indeed, the 2019 election was particularly poor for Sinn Fein with the party’s vote falling by almost 7% on its showing in 2017.   The big winner in 2019 was the Alliance party which saw its vote rise by almost 9%.  This again is evidence for the growth of that section of the population who are not identifying as either unionist or nationalist.  Alliance also benefited from a strong anti-Brexit sentiment that has expressed itself in every election in the north since the 2016 referendum.  There was - and remains - a clear majority of people in Northern Ireland opposed to Brexit.  However, elections held during this period do not show that majority translating into increased support for Irish nationalist parties.  Current surveys of voting intentions in the north show this trend continuing.  Sinn Fein may be the lead party but this is largely down to the fracturing of the unionist vote between the DUP, UUP and TUV rather than an increase in its own support or for nationalism more generally.  While political unionism may no longer command a majority within the northern state there is no indication that it will give way to a nationalist majority anytime soon if at all.

It is wrong to conflate the relative decline of the unionist parties and/or opposition to Brexit with increasing support for a united Ireland.  This is borne out by numerous opinion polls which have expressly asked the question whether people were in favour of a united Ireland.  For example, a Lucid Talk poll commissioned for the BBC NI’s Spotlight programme earlier this year suggested that people in Northern Ireland would vote to remain in the UK if a referendum was called at the present time.  Of those surveyed, 49% said they would vote to stay in the UK while 43% would support a united Ireland.  A Savanta ComRes survey carried out for the ITV Tonight programme found that 57% of people would vote to remain in the UK in a future border poll.  The 2020 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, seen as a key indicator of public opinion, found that while support for Irish unity had risen, 53% of people would still vote against a united Ireland in a snap poll.  The most recent poll, commissioned by the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies found that only 30% of people would support a united Ireland if a referendum was called tomorrow while almost 45% would prefer to remain in the UK.  Polls conducted in the south have also shown support for unity to be soft.  For example, an Amárach poll for RTE showed that 53% of people in the south were in favour of a united Ireland, 19% opposed, with 28% saying they didn’t know.  An Irish Times/Ipsos poll published in December 2021 found that whilst 62% of respondents favoured a united Ireland a similar percentage considered it a low priority. Also, when the potential costs of a united Ireland were factored in, support fell significantly.  In the south, as has been the case for a long period, there is a positive sentiment towards Irish unity, but this is largely passive and in no sense constitutes a political movement. Overall, the polling evidence shows that claims of growing support for a united Ireland are greatly overstated.

Border poll

There are also significant doubts about the mechanism of a border poll itself.  The most obvious of these is that the final decision on whether to hold one rests with the British secretary of state.  The Good Friday Agreement very clearly sets out the UK government minister’s authority in this regard. The only condition applied for the calling of a border poll by a SoS is that it: ‘appears likely to him/her that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.’  This is not an automatic process.  It is a matter of ministerial discretion, and it would not be readily judicially reviewable if he/she decided not to hold a poll.  One of the problems is that there is nothing in the GFA that defines “likely”.  There is no objective evidence and circumstances identified by which a SoS might conclude that a majority for a united Ireland is likely.  Legal efforts to have the conditions for the calling of a border poll made more explicit have been rejected.   In a case taken by victims’ campaigner Raymond McCord - both the High Court and the Court of Appeal – ruled that there was “no express duty” on the SoS “to publish a policy as to when or in what circumstances it is in the public interest to hold a border poll".  Moreover, they ruled that the GFA deliberately omitted criteria to allow for “political judgement” and “the constitutional value of flexibility”.

Not for the first time nationalists are reading too much into various documents and agreements – mistaking gestures towards a united Ireland as transitional mechanisms to actually bring it about.  Of course, it is in the political interests of the nationalist parties (particularly Sinn Fein) to play up the significance of these.  But it is also a fundamental misunderstanding of Britain’s position on Ireland.   This goes back to the Downing Street Declaration of 1993 - the foundation statement of the peace process and the all-subsequent agreements – and the statement contained within it that Britain had no selfish economic or strategic interests in Northern Ireland.   The inference here – and certainly the one that was meant to be conveyed - was that Britain was neutral on the constitutional position of the northern state and would not oppose Irish unification.  It was a means to draw Irish Republicans – and Irish nationalism more generally - into support for the peace process and subsequently into support for the institutions created by the GFA.  This assumption of British neutrality has since been extended to its role in a future border poll – the belief that a British government would both facilitate a referendum and would also not seek to influence the outcome.

What is never questioned is the sincerity of Britain’s declaration of neutrality.  Is it possible that it was nothing more than a gesture towards Irish nationalism?  The fact that we are thirty years on from the Downing Street Declaration and partition remains as entrenched as ever might suggest so.  If Britain really was neutral – and moreover, that it would actually like to free itself of the burden of Northern Ireland - wouldn’t something have changed over that period?    Maybe not a united Ireland but some way towards it.   Indeed, if this is the case why aren’t the British government pushing for a border poll?  The reality is that the British are moving that prospect further away.  Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he does not see a referendum on a united Ireland happening for “a very, very long time to come”.  The leader of the Labour Party Keir Starmer said he does not think a border poll or united Ireland "is in sight" and the question is "hypothetical".  If there was a border poll in his lifetime, he said he would campaign for Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK.  Such statements and - more than this - the stance of successive British governments towards Northern Ireland and Ireland as a whole over the past thirty years – suggest that far from being neutral Britain does indeed have strategic and economic interests in Ireland and that these are best secured through partition.

Nationalist family?

Probably the biggest weakness of the perspective held by advocates of a border poll is the assumption that all the parties under the broad banner of Irish nationalism are - to varying degrees - in favour of one, and beyond that, are also in favour of a united Ireland.  Yet statements made by the traditional parties of government in the southern state have explicitly ruled out a border poll.  Fianna Fáil leader Mícheal Martin has said that a border poll "was not the route to go" as it would be “too divisive”.  Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar has bluntly stated that setting a date for a border poll would be "wrong".  The Irish president Michael D Higgins has also weighed in on the subject claiming that more work needs to be done on "creating the conditions" for a border poll outcome that could be accepted by everyone. "I think a lot of work has yet to be done in creating the conditions in which you could arrive at a mature decision that could be accepted by all of those participating," he said.  His reference to acceptance suggests a requirement for unionist consent - not just for the holding of a border poll - but for any constitutional change that may follow from it.  This is a point that was made even more explicit by the late SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon, who in an article in 2019, made the case for any movement towards Irish unity to be conditional on parallel consent rather than just the will of a majority.  The implication of this is that unionism would continue to exercise a veto even if it were reduced to a minority position.  The strongest expression of opposition to a border poll has come from former Official Sinn Fein/Workers Party /Dem Left/Labour Party representative Proinnsias de Rossa who claimed that such a proposal should not be put forward for discussion. For him, the very idea of a united Ireland as a “noble aspiration” is outdated nonsense.  Rather than hold on to such “intellectual baggage” he urges political leaders to back the GFA as “a constitutional settlement for peace on this island fit to last for the next 100 years and more”.  While such a viewpoint is rarely expressed in such stark terms it does reveal the deep-seated attachment to partition that is widespread amongst the Irish political class.

For the most part, the leaders of Irish nationalism, from De Valera onwards, have gestured towards a united Ireland while doing nothing to bring it about.  At the same time, they have fiercely repressed the periodic revivals of Irish Republicanism that threatened the status quo.   Despite this history, Irish Republicanism - in its various incarnations - has held to the illusion of the “nationalist family” - that despite their differences all the parties under the banner of Irish nationalism support a united Ireland.  In practice this has seen successive generations of Irish Republicans defer to the leadership of the most conservative elements of nationalism and accommodate themselves to partition.  The seeds of this are already inherent in Irish Republicanism and can be seen in its various concepts of a united Ireland.   For example, in the Éire Nua programme, supported by Sinn Féin during the 1970s and early 1980s, the vision is for a federal United Ireland with power devolved to provincial assemblies.  Such a proposal was clearly a gesture to the idea of the north being a place apart and the granting of privileges to Protestants/Unionists.   Such a proposal also made its way into the report of the New Ireland Forum which had been convened in 1981 as a means to check the rise of Irish Republicanism in the wake of the hunger strikes.  The report — published in 1984- set out three possible frameworks for political development in Ireland: a unitary state, a federal state, and joint sovereignty. Fianna Fáil preferred a unitary state, while Fine Gael and Labour preferred the federal option.

The proposals from politicians and pressure groups around today are in a similar vein.  What is notable however, is that these proposals are much weaker than those put forward in 1984.  A number of TDs from the governing parties have sketched out potential political arrangements for a united Ireland.  In a paper entitled “Towards A New Ireland” Fine Gael’s Neale Richmond paper calls for the citizens’ assemblies to be convened simultaneously in the North and the South to lay the groundwork for a border poll which could be held in the next decade.   The paper also sets out a vision for a new political system that would retain elements of Stormont for at least the first decade.  A devolved administration would continue in Belfast for ten years, in parallel to an all-island parliament in Dublin. The lower house would be made up of ‘multi-seat, geographic, constituencies’ and ‘elected by proportional representation, single transferable vote’.  Key to his proposals is that people identifying as British in a new Ireland would retain the same rights to citizenship and identity as is afforded to people in the North under the Good Friday Agreement.  Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan has also set out a blueprint for an Irish unitary state.  Central to this is a new constitution that would require every government of an all-Ireland state to have a unionist component. “It would be beneficial for a new united Ireland to retain a bicameral system with one house sitting in Dublin and the other sitting in Stormont. his paper proposes that one could be an Irish Assembly/Dáil Éireann and the other could be an Irish Senate/Seanad Éireann,”.  Under this new constitution a certain number of cabinet positions would be filled by representatives of unionist parties.  Unionists would also be able to maintain British citizenship and British /unionist culture.  Whilst such plans purport to be transitional arrangements towards a united Ireland, in reality they represent nothing more than a repackaging of partition.  The references to culture and identity are no more than code for the continuation of sectarian intimidation in the form of parades, flag flying, mural painting and paramilitarism.

While Sinn Fein claims to be taking the lead in pursuing a united Ireland they have kept within the confines set by the “nationalist family”.  In no sense are Sinn Fein building a movement for a united Ireland.  The electoral growth of the party and its repeated calls for a border poll do not constitute a movement.     Indeed, the most notable initiative that Sinn Fein has taken is to place advertisements in a number of leading US newspapers.  At one level this is tokenism but it also reveals an assumption that US politicians (the most obvious audience for those adverts) and, by extension, the US government will play a positive role in bringing about Irish unity.   Of course, this follows on from the earlier involvement of the Clinton Administration in the peace process.  But, as already stated, there is no reason to believe that any of that is leading towards a united Ireland or that it is in the interests of US imperialism to bring that about.

The Left

It should also be noted that assumptions about a united Ireland and demands for a border poll have extended to the left as the various groups - particularly PBP - position themselves on the left flank of Sinn Féin. It has nothing to do with how socialists should address the question of national self-determination but more to an electoral strategy that revolves around picking up second and third preference votes from the larger party.  A call for a border poll has not traditionally been associated with the socialist left.  It is actually a demand that originated within unionism and for the most part has been seen as a device to maintain partition.  Indeed, by creating two separate acts (or stages) of self-determination - one in the north and one in south - it explicitly accepts the legitimacy of partition.   This is why socialists have not taken up calls for a border poll but rather put forward demands such as self-determination for the Irish people; for a Workers Republic; or even for an all-Ireland constituent assembly.  Just because the call for a border poll has now been taken up by nationalism doesn't mean we should change our position.

The cause of labour

The most famous quote of the revolutionary Marxist James Connolly is that: “The cause of Labour is the cause of Ireland, and the cause of Ireland is the cause of Labour.”  Since it was first stated in 1916 the conservative interpretation placed upon it - by Stalinists, Republicans and Nationalists - is that the working class should be subordinated to political demands of the Irish bourgeoisie. Or to put it another way - that labour must wait.  However, the experience of the last 100 years, in which the Irish capitalist class has not only failed but actively avoided carrying out its historic democratic tasks, suggests such an interpretation is wrong.  The reality is that the working class is the only class in Irish society that has an interest in fighting for self-determination and for an end to partition; not for the achievement of narrow nationalist objectives but to bring into existence that united and independent workers movement that is essential for the struggle for socialism.  Viewed from this perspective James Connolly’s words take on a completely different and revolutionary meaning.

Partition divides and thereby weakens the Irish working class.  Despite all the talk about unity, partition remains the foundation of capitalist rule in Ireland. Therefore, the Irish capitalist class, the British, the US and the EU all have a common interest in seeing it maintained.  The current leadership of the Irish labour movement can be added to those who have an interest in maintaining partition.  Indeed, it is their position that would be most immediately threatened by a revived and militant working class.  This is why there was such a hysterical reaction to a seemingly innocuous motion on Irish unity that was proposed for debate at ICTU’s annual conference a couple of years ago.   Both the Irish political class and their allies in the trade union bureaucracy are well attuned to the potential implications of such issues gaining traction and move quickly to shut them down.  This demonstrates ruthlessness but also an awareness of the precarious nature of their positions.  For socialists it is in the class struggle and in the struggle for working class independence where the outcome of the various crises building up in Irish society - including that of partition - will be determined.  That struggle is not advanced by backing calls for a border poll.

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