Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Toxic environment and no-deal fears threatening to tear the Union asunder

Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits The Princess Alexandra hospital in Harlow, Essex, yesterday for an announcement on new patient scanning equipment
Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits The Princess Alexandra hospital in Harlow, Essex, yesterday for an announcement on new patient scanning equipment
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

Another unedifying week in politics. Such was the poisonous rancour of Wednesday evening's Westminster 'debate' after Parliament reconvened that another prorogation might actually have been preferable.

Lady Hale's Supreme Court verdict opined of Parliament's suspension that its "effect on the functioning of our democracy was extreme". Watching agog on television, it was its resumption that troubled.

The midweek low was followed by another crass act of pettiness on Thursday when the Opposition parties voted against allowing a parliamentary recess during the Conservative Party conference, which begins tomorrow in Manchester.

Normally the conference season fills us regular attendees with dread. Such is the abysmal state of Parliament, however, that it has almost achieved the remarkable feat of making party conferences theatres of enlightenment and cerebral reason in comparison. Almost.

A major point of interest at the Conservatives' rally will be the DUP reception this Tuesday night. Two years ago at the same event in Manchester, DUP Deputy Leader Nigel Dodds hailed his Party's "five-year deal" with the Conservatives. Five weeks now seems more probable.

The looming election leaves the DUP praying for another mathematical miracle which leaves Boris Johnson around half-a-dozen seats off an overall majority. In which case, expect Boris to restate his inner unionism and the DUP reiterate the need for more cash for Northern Ireland.

With Johnson and the DUP seeking ways out of their Brexit conundrum, the potential impacts of a no-deal Brexit are causing internal disquiet.

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There are increasing fears over Brexit's possibly destabilising effects, not merely upon trade, but also Northern Ireland's future within the UK.

The former senior government adviser Lord Caine believes support for Irish unity will only increase. On the BBC's The View this week, Sir David Lidington, Deputy Prime Minister less than three months ago, highlighted the impact upon opinion polls on the border question arising from the spectre of a no-deal Brexit.

Unquestionably the polls suggest that a hard Brexit influences attitudes towards Irish unity. But how big is the threat to the Union?

There have been 12 opinion surveys conducted in Northern Ireland on the border issue since the 2016 EU referendum. Three have shown more in favour of a united Ireland than against: LucidTalk (2017) 46% to 45%; OFOC/Deltapoll (2018) 52% to 39% (the only poll ever showing an overall majority of the electorate in favour of unity) and Ashcroft (2019) 46% to 45%.

Of the nine studies showing more against unity than backing the idea, the majorities of opposition have ranged from 41% to a mere 3%.

Some of the explanation in the very divergent results lies in different survey methodologies used by polling organisations, but I won't bore you here with arguments over the respective merits of face-to-face interviews versus internet panels.

Of greater interest to readers may be the timeline of results. The first four surveys conducted after the EU referendum do not show any head of steam for a united Ireland. An average of 28% backed unity, with 57% against.

However, the four most recent surveys indicate a much closer contest in a border poll, averaging 44% backing for a united Ireland versus 45% against.

A poll of all those 12 polls since June 2016 shows 35% backing Irish unity, with 52% opposed.

Even those of us sceptical that a border poll would end Northern Ireland's place in the Union (or that Brexit will ever happen) recognise some shift in opinion. The movement has produced varied responses.

Ex-DUP leader Peter Robinson wisely counselled that unionists should, as a precaution, discuss their future in a united Ireland, forcing nationalists and republicans into serious political thought.

Unsurprisingly, there was blowback, with many unionists not prepared to countenance the terms of the dissolution of their status as UK citizens. That would be a 'surrender act' to coin a phrase in vogue.

Former SDLP Deputy Leader Seamus Mallon floated the idea of the need for concurrent unionist and nationalist majorities for change. That's a bad suggestion for many reasons.

One, it breaches the crucial consent principle in the Good Friday Agreement. Second, it elevates unionists and nationalists above the non-aligned, even though the most recent Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (in another inevitably contested finding) found they constituted 50% of Northern Ireland's population, compared to 26% identifying as unionist and 21% as nationalist. Third, republicans struggled for most of the twentieth century to come to terms with what they regarded as a gerrymander. They will not acquiesce for most of the twenty-first to another.

Brexit would surely lead to a border poll at some point. A Corbyn government might also trigger such a referendum.

Amid the bitterness of the Scottish and EU cases, we know that referendums are rarely definitive. Most of the parties are trying to overturn one referendum result. Remarkably, the SNP has got two result reversals on the go.

But Unionists fear that their first defeat in a border poll would be treated as final. Nationalists know that under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, they can play it long. There can be another contest after seven years.

And you thought politics might quieten down one day.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and director of the last three ESRC Northern Ireland general election studies

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