Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What the (lack of) Border Poll really tells us.

A couple of weeks ago, David Thorpe did an Opinion Piece in Liberal Dem Voice with the the title: "Is Northern Ireland the elephant in the coalition’s room?"

The quick answer to that one is "no". For the reasons why and the gentle dismantling of Thorpe's other arguments, check out the comments zone following his post. There were also a number of factual errors in the piece but the one which stood out like a sore thumb was this:
This (The Belfast Agreement) indicates that reunification can only happen if the majority of the population in both communities consent. On the surface it would appear that the matter is tied up with that sentence. But if Sinn Fein try to trigger a referendum, even if only for politically opportunistic reasons, splits which will ensue in unionism between those who would rather be governed from Dublin than ruled by Sinn Fein and those who will try to trigger the end of power sharing.
A simple majority of those voting in a Referendum on Northern Ireland's constitutional future will suffice. In that event, there would be no need for "weighted communal majorities" and the thought that the ROI's government, never mind Sinn Fein, would have ever have countenanced signing up to such a provision is quite bizarre. More importantly (and this is a fact which is often overlooked), that referendum cannot be triggered by Sinn Fein or any other political party in Northern Ireland; this is what the relevant part of the Belfast Agreement states:
"1 Status of Northern Ireland

(1) It is hereby declared that Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll held for the purposes of this section in accordance with Schedule 1.
(2) But if the wish expressed by a majority in such a poll is that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland, the Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament such proposals to give effect to that wish as may be agreed between Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom and the Government of Ireland."

"Polls for the purposes of section 1

1 The Secretary of State may by order direct the holding of a poll for the purposes of section 1 on a date specified in the order.
2 Subject to paragraph 3, the Secretary of State shall exercise the power under paragraph 1 if at any time it appears likely to him 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.
3 The Secretary of State shall not make an order under paragraph 1 earlier than seven years after the holding of a previous poll under this Schedule.
4 (1) An order under this Schedule directing the holding of a poll shall specify—
(a) the persons entitled to vote; and
(b) the question or questions to be asked.
(2) An order—
(a) may include any other provision about the poll which the Secretary of State thinks expedient (including the creation of criminal offences); and
(b) may apply (with or without modification) any provision of, or made under, any enactment."
Only the Northern Ireland Secretary of State can decide if a "border poll" is to be held and only if the "likely" result is that a majority of those voting would wish to leave the United Kingdom. Despite suggestions by David Trimble, amongst others, the poll can no longer be held (as was the case in 1972) to confirm the size of the pro-Union majority. We do, however, at least know that Sinn Fein and the SDLP, by their silence on the matter, implicitly agree that majority remains a real and tangible one; it's just a pity that that pro-Union parties can't show the same degree of confidence in that fact and start moving out of the bunker.


kensei said...

Well, I wouldn't say it can't be held to establish the current situation. The Assembly could presumably organise a non binding one, or if they asked in the form of a vote it would hard for the SoS to say no. Further, he could just lie.

SDLP have floated it a few times overt he past ten years. Personally, I'd like them to wait until things are a bit more stable, then go for it. Always beter to know th esize of the task faced.

O'Neill said...

"The Assembly could presumably organise a non binding one, or if they asked in the form of a vote it would hard for the SoS to say no."

The question being would such a measure get the requisite "cross-community" support? A substantial % of the Unionist MLAs and I think also Sinn Fein, for differing reasons, would be against it. And for differing reasons, I;d agree with your last statement; it could push both nationalism and Unionism out of their present communal comfort-zones.