Belfast Telegraph

Stop: Why we are still (border) polls apart here in Northern Ireland

Though Scotland voted to stay in the Union, Sinn Fein wasted no time in calling for a referendum in Northern Ireland. But, actually, there's no comparison between the question asked across the water and the implications of such a poll here, says Alex Kane

A reasonably comfortable majority of the electorate in Scotland decides to remain in the United Kingdom, and then Sinn Fein responds by asking for a border poll in Northern Ireland!

Sinn Fein has no hope of winning a border poll, and it is well aware that it has no hope of winning a border poll. The party is also well aware that the Secretary of State – the calling of such a poll is down to her – will not be minded to call one until such times as "it appears likely 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".

At the moment, all of the evidence suggests it is very unlikely that there would be a majority for ending the Union.

Why ask for a poll, then? Well, it is probably to do with a mixture of mischief and keeping the Sinn Fein grassroots happy.

Since unionists don't want a border poll and the Secretary of State isn't going to call one anyway, Sinn Fein can accuse them of being afraid of engaging in a civil debate about "our collective future on this island".

And since the Scottish result dented the party's dream of the Celtic countries breaking away from the United Kingdom, it needs to give the impression that its own particular dream has not been damaged.

Again, the Secretary of State's refusal to call a poll allows Sinn Fein to argue (and, let's be honest, the bulk of its grassroots will not be aware of the legislative stuff) that the British are still interfering and holding back the will of the Irish people – blah, blah, blah.

So, there is not going to be a border poll in the next few months. That is probably a good thing because there are a great many issues about such an idea that need to be addressed and need to be understood – soon, and certainly well in advance of an actual poll. In other words, it is not as simple as just picking a day and asking the electorate whether they wish to remain in the United Kingdom or become part of a united Ireland.

First of all, how does the Secretary of State conclude that it appears likely that a majority of people in Northern Ireland would vote to leave the United Kingdom for a united Ireland?

Even if Sinn Fein were to become the largest party here, it does not follow that an overall majority of the electorate would share its dream of Irish unity.

And bearing in mind that turnout for elections is currently hovering around 50%, how can we work out what the non-voters want? And if we cannot work that out, how do some people leap to the conclusion that they would probably support Irish unity?

It strikes me as odd, too, that there is an automatic assumption that those who would be minded to leave the United Kingdom would prefer Irish unity rather than, for example, an independent Northern Ireland.

Also, what would the border poll question be, and who would frame it?

At the last border poll in 1973 (boycotted by nationalists), there were two questions: Do you want Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK? And do you want Northern Ireland to be joined with the Republic of Ireland, outside the UK?

I presume those questions would still be valid. But would there be a question, perhaps, on an independent Northern Ireland? Or would there just be one question: Do you want Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and become part of a united Ireland?

But what involvement would there be from the political parties in the Republic, and at what point?

If the border poll is about asking the electorate to give a view on becoming part of a united Ireland, then, at the very least, the Irish political parties should be telling us what a united Ireland would look like and what accommodation would be made for unionists. That debate has not even begun. And in the absence of something of considerable substance from the Irish parties, I do not even see how there could be an informed debate.

Leaving the United Kingdom is one thing and, relatively speaking, a plain choice for people to make. But creating a united Ireland and folding what was Northern Ireland into it is a much more complicated matter.

I get the impression that Sinn Fein takes the view that all the detail can be sorted out after the decision to leave the United Kingdom has been made, but that strikes me as crazy.

The choice that faced the Scottish electorate was built around a debate between two incredibly clear visions for Scotland, with both sides providing manifestoes and costed agendas. So how can the electorate here be expected to make a choice between a united Ireland and the United Kingdom if one side of the debate is not putting forward a manifesto?

Again, it is hard to avoid the impression that Sinn Fein – as it does with so many other things – takes the 'ourselves alone' approach to the border poll and assumes it will be making the case for a united Ireland.

But Sinn Fein is just one party. Any decision to unite Ireland requires input from the main southern Irish parties and the southern electorate. That input must accompany a border poll debate. Yet, so far, we have heard practically nothing from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

Also, what input could be expected from the British political parties? How likely is it that the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats would build a Better Together coalition or allow their local organisations to campaign for the Union?

The very worst thing for the pro-Union campaign would be any sense of mainstream, mainland parties remaining neutral on the periphery of the debate. But again, there is no evidence that those parties and the mainstream pro-Union parties have even talked about the subject.

There will be a border poll one day in Northern Ireland. Indeed, on one interpretation of the Act which gave the Belfast Agreement its legislative framework, there is a certain amount of wriggle room for the Secretary of State to call a poll even if there is not evidence that a majority would vote for a united Ireland.

But it would be absurd – utterly, utterly absurd – to conduct a poll against a background in which there had been little or no conversation about the choices facing the electorate.

A border poll is about the constitutional future of Northern Ireland. Anyone who wants a say about what happens to Northern Ireland – be it still in the United Kingdom or not – has an obligation to give some very straight, very unambiguous answers to key questions.

What is required at this stage is a mini convention at which all of the parties and likely participants agree on how such a poll would be conducted.

The likelihood of tensions being raised would be high, but it may be possible to lessen them – as well as improving the chances of a genuine, honest debate – if we are all very clear of exactly what is involved.

A border poll is not just about Northern Ireland. It is about the United Kingdom. It is about the Republic of Ireland. It is, for people living here, the single most important political/identity debate they will ever have. For all of our sakes, let us make sure we get the right conditions and circumstances.

Follow Alex Kane on Twitter on @AlexKane221b

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