Changing times

Will Sinn Féin's success lead to a vote over a united Ireland?






Sinn Féin hailed its first victory in a Northern Ireland assembly election as a defining moment for the British-controlled region and called for a debate on a united Ireland. The party’s president, Mary Lou McDonald, had a simple message for unionists: “Don’t be scared, the future is bright for us all.” The party has played down its goal for a united Ireland, but unionists will have been spooked by previous statements that Sinn Féin would like to see a border poll on unification within five to 10 years. Can Sinn Féin call a border poll as the largest party in Northern Ireland? No. That power lies only with the Northern Ireland secretary. The current incumbent Brandon Lewis categorically ruled out such a poll last week and his successors are unlikely to order a referendum with such profound implications. As Sinn Féin’s deputy leader, Michelle O’Neill, said before the election, the Brexit vote showed the perils of referendums called without adequate preparation. The last one in Ireland legalised abortion and is considered a model for controversial polls. It took years of preparation, including citizens’ assemblies and proposed legislation agreed in advance in parliament, so voters knew the consequences. How can a border poll come about? The Good Friday agreement (GFA) states: “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, the secretary of state shall make an order in Council enabling a border poll.” Is the election result enough to qualify as a ‘majority’ for a poll? A majority is not defined in the GFA, but experts say multiple metrics would have to be used. A group of academics led by Alan Renwick, deputy director of University College London’s constitution unit, spent two years studying a potential border poll. Their 259-page report concluded there would have to be majority support – probably 51% to 55% – for a united Ireland over time before the secretary of state would have to exercise their “mandatory duty”. Alan Whysall, also from the unit, said in 1998 a unification was “a distant” prospect and the GFA’s wording is marred by “serious gaps, and ambiguities” for a poll. UCL suggested six sources of evidence: election results, opinion polls, qualitative research, a Stormont vote, seats won at elections and demographic data. Is demographic data key? It is widely assumed that those of a Catholic heritage would support a unification while those of a Protestant persuasion would not. Census results out this summer could show that Catholics outnumber Protestants for the first time. However, Peter Shirlow, the director of the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies, believes a new cohort of “secular unionists” wants to see Northern Ireland remain part of the UK.