Road to united Ireland remains open
The Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll should draw a line under Irish unification. But, as the Scottish referendum campaign showed, constitutional issues retain the power to inflame political discourse, writes Richard Wilford
Any belief that the chronic issue of the border has become an acute problem is contradicted by the outcome of the Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll.
While a majority expressed the desire to hold a referendum on the matter, an even larger proportion stated their preference for the status quo, namely that Northern Ireland must remain within the Union.
On that basis, there is nothing in the results that will persuade the Secretary of State to make the necessary arrangements for such a vote since it can only be held in circumstances where there is compelling evidence – derived from polls, surveys and election results – that a majority of the electorate signal clearly that they demand a change in Northern Ireland's constitutional status. And that, currently, is not the case.
The Secretary of State, whoever occupies the office, cannot call a referendum with the stated purpose of confirming Northern Ireland's place in the Union.
Theresa Villiers need not, then, concern herself with this matter, but instead can, together with her Irish counterpart, focus her energies on the more immediate task of seeking accommodation among the parties on flags, the past and parades, in effect picking up where the Haass/O'Sullivan talks left off. But the context is trickier than was the case nine months ago.
The impasse on welfare reform/cuts – the scope of which will only grow for the foreseeable future – the associated deterioration in DUP/Sinn Fein relations, disquiet among the DUP's so-called "lemming" tendency over Peter Robinson's leadership, fuelled by the party's loss of 100,000 votes at the European election, and, perhaps most pertinently, the UK-wide constitutional debate occasioned by the outcome of the Scottish referendum have collectively changed the political weather and carry the potential to reshape the institutional architecture of the UK. In short, the constitution is in a fluid not a steady state.
Such flux should caution against complacency, not least because the Union itself is in the process of being redefined: as a former Welsh politician once put it, "devolution is a process not an event".
We will have to wait for the details of what new powers will be devolved to Scotland and, by extension, to Wales and Northern Ireland and, as far as Westminster is concerned, how the West Lothian question will be resolved.
To digress for a moment, I think it is a mistake for David Cameron to harness Scotland to the vexed English question: the process of determining what additional powers will be devolved to the Scots should be separate from, though related to, what happens in England.
To conflate them, as Cameron has done, in part because of the populist challenge posed by Ukip, risks delay in designing a new Scottish "settlement". A much more sensible path would be to address and resolve the further development of Scottish devolution first and then establish a constitutional convention to deal with the rest of the UK.
To assume that all such matters can be agreed in advance of next May's general election is an exercise in not just wishful, but idle, thinking.
Returning to the outcomes of the Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll, can unionists rest easy in their beds while nationalists fret in frustration? Certainly, the finding that 44% of the electorate favour the retention of the Union, while almost 30% support Irish unification at some point over the next 20 years suggests that Northern Ireland's position in the UK is secure for the foreseeable future.
Moreover, that one in five of Catholic respondents supports the constitutional status quo defines the scale of the task confronting Sinn Fein and the SDLP.
However, more than a quarter of those polled fell into the "Don't Know"/"No Opinion" category: a sizeable minority who, in theory, may be biddable to one side of the argument or the other.
And one lesson drawn from the Scottish experience is that once its referendum campaign began in earnest, especially as it crested towards its climax on September 18, voters' minds changed, albeit that the final outcome showed a much more commanding majority against independence than opinion polls had suggested – though the gap between the opposing camps narrowed in favour of the Yes campaign over the two-year long debate.
While I cannot envisage it happening in my lifetime, if there was to be a border poll, the Scottish example demonstrates that the dynamics of a referendum campaign carry the potential to both confirm and change opinion.
And, if the Scottish model was to be adopted, a border referendum would be a very blunt device, demanding a Yes or No answer to the question, "Should Northern Ireland unify with the Republic of Ireland?"
But, while reminding ourselves that as things currently stand there will only be such a poll if there is an evidence-based desire for constitutional change, the question might allow preferences to be expressed about the alternative forms of unification: for example, "Should Ireland be (a) a unitary state or (b) a federal state or (c) a devolved state?" Venturing into those options for governance would massively complicate the terms of debate.
To date, the level of that debate is significantly underdeveloped and yet it would have to be joined in order that the electorates, north and south, were provided with a clear understanding of each of the options and their respective implications.
Indeed, though the temptation might be to opt for the more singular and straightforward question suggested above, this does not mean that the nature of future governance arrangements of a unified Ireland could be ducked.
They would need to be established prior to a referendum by political classes on both sides of the border, not just among Northern Ireland's political parties, and be clearly communicated to voters so that they could make a fully informed choice.
In the light of the results of the Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll, to contemplate such an imagined future seems quixotic: nothing more than tilting at a phantom windmill. Such a conclusion is underscored by the increased bipolarity of preferred national identity, either British or Irish, and the decline of those who perceive themselves as Northern Irish.
Yet, there is a sizeable, if minority, slice of the population who profess either no preferred identity, or otherness, or simply Don't Know (or, perhaps, Don't Care), including 22% of Protestants and more than 15% of Catholics. And one-in-five of 18- to 24-year-olds also falls into this broad and no doubt loose constituency. Could these cohorts prove decisive in any future referendum? Perhaps.
Maybe, then, there is still some comfort for those politicians who aspire to Irish unification, but on the basis of the poll's findings they shouldn't hold their collective breath: that would be both idle and misguided.
Instead, together with unionists and others, they need to channel their energies towards solving the more immediate issues confronting Northern Ireland, including the further development of our own model of devolution.
But, then, that might also seem a quixotic hope.
Dr Richard Wilford is Professor of Politics at Queen's University