Jon Tonge: Why criteria for a border poll needs to be outlined more clearly
As the political parties wrangle for the best possible deal to allow a return to Stormont, one question begged is the constitutional implications for a resumption of devolution.
The last three years have seen endless speculation over how Brexit could help bring about a united Ireland.
Online opinion polls have seen sizeable movement in this direction over the last year.
Yet successive annual Northern Ireland Life and Times surveys have shown that support for devolved power-sharing within the UK is the most popular constitutional option. In 2018, this was endorsed by 41% of the electorate, compared to only 19% backing Irish unity and 21% direct UK rule.
That study was conducted more than 18 months after the Brexit vote and a year after the collapse of the Assembly. Given the apparent continuing popularity of devolved power-sharing, is it possible that its successful restoration could mean the continued containment of aspirations for a united Ireland?
The low support for Irish unity in the Life and Times survey and in other university-based studies comes via face-to-face interviews. It contrasts with much higher support recorded in online surveys such as those undertaken by LucidTalk.
Question phrasing may also matter. Some surveys ask respondents their long-term constitutional preference for Northern Ireland. That is not guaranteed to obtain the same result as a question asking, "how you would vote if there was a border poll tomorrow?" The ESRC Westminster election studies, involving the universities of Liverpool, Leeds, Aberdeen and the LSE and undertaken by Social Market Research Belfast, use the "border poll tomorrow" question. The 2017 version found 27% support for unity, 23% don't know and 50% support for staying in the UK. We await with interest the 2019 results due next month.
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These surveys - and their reliability - matter because they have potentially important implications for prospects for a border poll. The Northern Ireland Act 1998, which gave effect to the Good Friday Agreement, says that a poll will be called by the Secretary of State "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 UK and form part of a united Ireland".
This is highly arbitrary. Even leaving aside that a British Secretary of State is hardly a constitutional neutral, where is the objective criteria for the pre-assessment of public opinion? It does not exist. On what basis does the Secretary of State decide to press the poll button? We simply don't know.
During the time that the two most recent Secretaries of State have held office, there have been polls ranging from 52% support for unity to a mere 21%. Cherry-picking of poll results according to political preferences is nothing new but it is no way to trigger a constitutional question. We need to know which surveys or polls are being considered, why some are more highly regarded than others; whether there is a threshold (say, above 40% support for a united Ireland) to trigger a unity vote and over what period of time that threshold needs to be reached.
It is also worth considering that there has been significant demographic change which has influenced election results in places such as North Belfast. The DUP leads Sinn Fein by a solitary seat in Westminster and Assembly representation. Should that closeness form criteria for staging a border poll?
Or is the surge in support for the constitutional neutrals of Alliance more important? We don't know because there is no fixed criteria.
There is a need for an independent panel, using objective analysis, to at least recommend to the Secretary of State the appropriate course of action and to act fairly to unionists, nationalists and constitutional agnostics alike.
To be clear, I have no doubt that if a border poll was to be held tomorrow there would be a majority in favour of the status quo. Sinn Fein has much work to do. The point is bigger than party politics or the merits of such a contest.
This is an argument for clearer criteria for a border poll, not necessarily the wisdom of staging one tomorrow.
To its credit, the constitution unit at University College London is attempting to address some of the issues raised here but this admirable work does not change the legal position in which the Secretary of State alone effectively decides what the people of Northern Ireland are thinking. Is he thinking what you are thinking?
Jon Tonge is professor of politics at the University of Liverpool and principal investigator of ESRC NI general election studies