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History was made in Northern Ireland this week when Sinn Féin’s Vice President Michelle O’Neill became the first nationalist to hold the title of First Minister. Celebrating its success, party leader Mary Lou McDonald said that a United Ireland was “in touching distance” – a sentiment starkly contrasted by the UK’s Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris who commented: “Not in my lifetime.” Is Ireland on the path to a border poll?
Politically, Northern Ireland is unrecognisable when compared to its inception. Established with an in-built Protestant majority, unionism maintained its preordained position as the region’s dominant political power for almost a century.
Today, however, unionism has lost its majority at Stormont, Westminster, in local government, and subsequently the office of First Minister – held by a unionist in every mandate since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement 23 years ago. The office of First and Deputy First Minister might be equal, but the symbolism of the titles has meaning.
While unionism continues its steady decline across each electoral office, Northern Ireland’s largest nationalist party, Sinn Féin, has become dominant at local and assembly levels. This new administration also includes a nationalist opposition leader, as the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) takes up the mantle.
In tandem with politics, the concept of identity is also shifting in Northern Ireland. The 2021 Census showed an eight-point drop in ‘British’ identity in 10 years, while Irish and Northern Irish identities are on the rise. It was the first census in the history of Northern Ireland to show a Catholic majority. Northern Ireland is demonstrably less British, and less unionist, than it’s ever been before.
So, what do the polls say?
Following the EU Referendum, Northern Ireland has seen a significant uptick in polling centred on the subject of a United Ireland. As with most polls, the results are a mixed bag.
In 2022, 41% of respondents to a LucidTalk poll indicated they would vote “yes” to a United Ireland if a vote was held today, and a further 10% said they “would or may” vote yes in 15 to 20 years’ time. In the 2022 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, 48% indicated that they want the region to remain within the UK in the long-term. Support for a United Ireland in the NILT poll rose to 31% – more than double the percentage reported in 2015 before the 2016 EU Referendum.
While polling ultimately hasn’t revealed consistent majority support for a United Ireland, polling has also failed to show reliable support for maintaining Northern Ireland’s position in the United Kingdom, with percentages of those who would vote to remain consistently failing to reach even half the vote share.
A point for consideration about the question being asked – “if a border poll was held today would you vote to remain in the United Kingdom or for a United Ireland?” – is that, at present, there is no official plan, no vision, and no detail as to what a United Ireland might look like, people are being asked the question based on limited information, ideology and emotions.
Polling results might change considerably when a plan emerges. A United Ireland with an NHS-style healthcare system? A new constitution? New governance structures and an ambitious all-island economic plan?
The new First Minister has said she believes a vote on Irish unity could occur within a decade: “There are so many things that are changing. All the old norms, the nature of this state, the fact that a nationalist republican was never supposed to be First Minister. That all speaks to the change”.
In contrast, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “It is not constitutional change, it is delivering on the day-to-day things that matter to people”. While Heaton-Harris ruled out a vote in the next decade.
But just what is the UK Government’s role when it comes to constitutional change?
The Good Friday Agreement outlines how “the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction [in Northern Ireland] shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality”. The Agreement and the 1998 Northern Ireland Act place a legal duty on the Northern Ireland Secretary to call a border poll “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”. So, unless Heaton-Harris has a time machine, he is disregarding the fluidity of this duty.
The Agreement outlines that the constitutional future of Northern Ireland is “for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent”.
There is a serious question as to whether the current Government is discharging its duties under the Good Friday Agreement. Instead of “rigorous impartiality”, we have an unashamedly pro-Union Government that not only repeatedly expresses support for Northern Ireland to remain in the UK, but created an entire command paper that speaks only to unionist concerns and interests.
The ‘Safeguarding the Union’ command paper, which lured the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) back into power-sharing, includes 17 references to unionism and zero references to nationalism. It was a one-sided negotiation that delivered one-sided results and departed entirely from the spirit of cooperation and parity of esteem in the Good Friday Agreement.
There is an unbridled hypocrisy is decrying the aspirations of nationalists, while parroting one’s own divergent political aspirations.
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Meanwhile, on the ground, preparation for a border poll is already well underway. Universities across the UK and Ireland are conducting research on constitutional change. At a civic level, pro-Union and pro-United Ireland campaign groups have already been established, and political parties are getting ready.
On the pro-United Ireland campaign side there is Ireland’s Future, which has held several conferences, including one in 2022 that was attended by 5,000 people, and included representatives from 10 political parties. On the pro-Union side, there is both Uniting UK – set up by a former Ulster Unionist Party MLA Philip Smith – and Arlene Foster’s Together UK Foundation.
In 2020, the SDLP launched the New Ireland Commission to prepare for constitutional change, and for two years Sinn Féin has been holding a series of people’s assemblies across the island of Ireland.
Within the Irish Government there is both the Shared Island Unit, which examines cross-border relationships and opportunities, and Ireland’s second chamber, Seanad Éireann, which recently held a public consultation on constitutional change.
Ireland’s national paper, The Irish Times, has also launched a series examining a United Ireland. None of this would have been imaginable even five years ago and yet the debate has permeated into every seam of the social fabric.
There won’t be a border poll tomorrow, but Northern Ireland is closer to a vote than it has ever been before. It is not a case of if the people of Northern Ireland go to the polls – it’s a case of when. The ground is already being tilled, the politics is transforming – the missing components are a vision of what unity looks like and a plan to reach it. Once those are arrived at, the polls may quickly start to change.
Emma DeSouza is an Irish writer, commentator and campaigner