Nothing compels London to remain impartial during a border poll
At some point, probably within the next decade or so, there will be a border poll to determine Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. People will be asked to make a choice between Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom, or leaving and becoming part of a united Ireland.
It is already clear that the Irish government (which might, at that point, be led by, or include, Sinn Fein) will campaign for unity. What is not so clear is what a UK Government would do, or be allowed to do.
A few months ago, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer annoyed some nationalists when he said, “I believe in the United Kingdom and I will make the case for a United Kingdom.”
Sinn Fein accused him of breaching some rule (which is unwritten, by the way) that supposedly committed a British government to a fixed position of neutrality during a border poll.
Yet, all the Good Friday Agreement confirmed was that it was for the people 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 freely and concurrently given, north and south, to bring about a united Ireland if that is their wish.”
There is nothing in the agreement which forbids a British government from having an opinion on the outcome, or of making a case for the continuation of the Union.
What it must not do is either prevent a border poll, or refuse to implement the outcome of one, which would constitute “external impediment”. The word neutrality is neither mentioned nor defined in the text.
But, last week, Labour’s former shadow secretary of state, Louise Haigh, said: “It’s not my job to be a persuader for the Union, that was an important principle that led up to the Good Friday Agreement. One of the important principles was that Britain should not have any strategic or selfish economic interest in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. It’s up to the people of Northern Ireland to determine their own constitutional future.”
Starmer didn’t contradict her view. Former Secretary of State Peter Hain agreed with her position. So, unless we hear Peter Kyle, Haigh’s successor, row back from what she said, we probably have to conclude that “neutrality” is Labour’s position. Which could be quite a problem if it’s a Labour government and Secretary of State (along with a Sinn Fein-led Irish government) which is in office if a border poll is called.
And it’s quite a problem for unionists: for they would not be able to rely on the government of the United Kingdom to be in their corner when a decision which could change the very shape of the UK is being made. That strikes me as a ludicrous situation.
The issue of neutrality is one which needs to be resolved long before a border poll is called. My understanding of the original “no selfish economic or strategic interest” stance — first uttered by former Secretary of State Peter Brooke in November 1990, before finding its way into the Downing Street Declaration in December 1993 — was that a British government would facilitate the outcome of any future decision to end the Union by majority consent in Northern Ireland.
But in neither the Downing Street Declaration nor the Good Friday Agreement is there any specific, unambiguous insistence on “neutrality” by a British government during a border poll.
It’s certainly what Keir Starmer seemed to believe in July and what Conservative Party spokespeople believed when they responded to Haigh’s comments last week.
David Cameron and Gordon Brown weren’t neutral during the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. Neither the Conservative nor Labour parties insisted that Northern Ireland would be regarded as “neutral” during the EU referendum.
So, it would be extraordinary if a British government were neutral during a border poll and even more extraordinary if the parties which weren’t in government, including Scottish and Welsh nationalists, were allowed to champion the pro-Irish unity campaign. The agreement says nothing about that, either.
Ambiguity (whether the constructive or destructive variety) has done huge damage to the Good Friday Agreement since 1998. Things which were taken for granted, or left to a process of hope over previous experience, just turned out to be one spanner after another thrown into the Executive machinery.
Some parties think British government neutrality in a border poll is embedded in the interpretation of the Good Friday Agreement. Others, including the unionist parties and the Conservatives, insist neutrality is not required.
So, which is it? Or do we just wait until the poll is called (maybe by a Labour government) and see what happens? That way lies madness, I suspect.
The pro-Irish unity campaign will have massive support behind it: the Irish government; Irish lobbyists in America; the SNP and PC; support from “friends” within the EU; and a raft of documents and promises from all the political parties and potential members of future governments in the south. There will be no neutrality, which is the most powerful advantage the pro-unity campaign will have.
Contrast that with the pro-UK campaign. How do you run a coherent campaign if the party of government in the UK at the time of the poll believes it is required to be neutral?
How do you compete against a pro-unity campaign fully backed and funded by the Irish government? And even if a Conservative government decided it wasn’t neutral, how far would it be allowed to go without being accused of creating impediments and undermining the right of self-determination?
All of those issues and questions need addressed and resolved. Like everything else in Northern Ireland politics, leaving decisions and interpretations until the last minute never ends well.