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An Irish Unity Referendum


An Irish Unity Referendum        Gerry OShea

As well as burning through five prime ministers since the Brexit referendum in 2016, the decision to leave the EU ushered in years of economic decline in Great Britain. The Tory argument that drove the change promised that by stripping their country from the domination of bureaucrats in Brussels they would invigorate the local economy and open the door to a new era of English supremacy.

Brexit was carried by less than 52% of the electorate in the United Kingdom, but, significantly, it was rejected by the voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Polls show that if the British people were asked today to decouple from the European Union the proposal would be roundly defeated.

The damage is done and Keir Starmer, the Labor Party leader and odds-on favorite to be the next British prime minister, has assured the electorate that while his party will actively pursue policies of close co-operation with the EU they will not put the country through another plebiscite.

Steve Baker is a British minister of state for Northern Ireland and a former chairman of a prominent Tory group that advocated strongly for Brexit. He is especially remembered for the preposterous assertion that the EU is a threat to world peace! In his new role as a government minister, he pleaded recently for a 60% majority when the time comes for a referendum on Irish unity.

This out-of-the-blue suggestion by a government minister to disregard a simple majority vote elicited guffaws among leaders in London and Dublin. Here was a man who led the charge for the passage of Brexit which would have failed dismally if success was measured by the weighted majority that he now advocates for Northern Ireland.

Imagine the results of the 1998 referenda on the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) north and south of the border if the voters were told that there would be no change in the status of Northern Ireland without close to two-thirds approval in a plebiscite. The results would surely have been very different.

It is not the first time that the idea favoring a weighted majority on Irish unity has been floated. The late Seamus Mallon who served as the late John Hume’s second-in-command in the Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), a nationalist group strongly opposed to the use of violence to achieve a united Ireland, also favored a 50-plus approval from the voters for constitutional change in the North.

Mallon from the republican heartland of South Armagh was seen as the strong nationalist voice in the SDLP leadership, so his opinion that Irish unity should require a super-majority caused amazement in political circles at the time. He explained that nationalists should eschew the crude majoritarianism practiced by unionists most of the time since the island was partitioned a hundred years ago.

He spelled out his thinking that a 51 percent majority favoring unity would inevitably create a sense of “a captured unionist minority inside a state from which they are completely alienated.” Mallon’s immediate follow-up rhetorical question, “Does that sound familiar?” recalled the maltreatment of Catholics by a succession of unionist regimes since the island was divided in 1921.

Mallon was one of the main architects of the Good Friday Agreement which he memorably described as Sunningdale for slow learners, referring to the 1973 proposal which included power-sharing and a Council of Ireland and which was rejected as a sellout both by loyalists through the belligerent Ulster Workers Council and by the IRA.

The idea of a referendum for constitutional change did not feature at Sunningdale but is central to the GFA which specifies that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is obliged to initiate a plebiscite when there is evidence that most of the people living there may favor a united Ireland.

Polls suggest that if the vote was held this year a unity proposal would be easily defeated with around 60% opposed. The main unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party, is riven with division between those who favor returning to an internal parliament in Stormont and the strong contingent who are convinced that the Brexit-related deals have consigned them to second-class status in the United Kingdom.

While the Protestant community no longer follows a strong political party as they did for most of the time since the statelet was established, their firm opposition to any kind of island-wide political reunification has not changed.

 Sinn Fein is now the largest nationalist party - by far - and their number one goal is to end partition. The IRA was active as their military wing until the GFA required them to disarm. They remain the hated bete noire throughout the unionist community, and the local polling shows very few changing their minds on the constitutional issue.

The current coalition government in Dublin favors a revitalized Stormont with a unity referendum well down the road. However, Sinn Fein is the biggest party in the current Dail and they may well lead the next Dublin government. They will certainly be pushing the leaders in London to include a unity plebiscite in their plans.

Irish nationalists keep a close eye on Scotland and the efforts of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) to leave the United Kingdom. The separation referendum in September 2014 failed by close to 20%, and the SNP has lost ground since because of an internal scandal about the misappropriation of party funds.

Polling after the Scottish vote revealed that many citizens stayed with the status quo because it provided certitude about the pension and healthcare benefits they enjoyed which they were unwilling to risk losing. The devil you know philosophy militated against change.

These are the challenges facing Irish nationalists in their drive for unification. There are strong arguments that assert that people in Northern Ireland would benefit economically from close ties to Dublin and Brussels, but convincing a majority of this is a big challenge. As was the case in Scotland, the attraction of the status quo will weigh heavily on the result.

Gerry OShea bogs at



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