Imagine people in Britain were informed Brexit would not happen because only 52 percent had voted for it and that such a divisive issue now required a supermajority of 60 percent before it passed? Or how about divorce in the south of Ireland which was won by less than 1 percent of the vote, 50.28% in favour and 49.72% against? Would it be legitimate to block Brexit or the legalisation of divorce on the basis that neither referendum achieved a supermajority for such controversial decisions? Of course not. Yet when it comes to a border poll in Ireland, no matter how many times it is rejected as anti-democratic and contrary to the referendum provision laid out in the Good Friday Agreement schemes advocating the illiberal requirement for a supermajority continue to be pop up as regular as clockwork. Mathew Parris is the latest figure to rehash this tired proposition.
The Spectator magazine featured a piece by former Tory MP and Times columnist titled `My Fears about an Irish Border Poll`. In it he suggested many Tories, himself included, would be happy to see a United Ireland at some point and be rid of the `sour politics and rudeness of Ulster unionism`. Then came the sting in the tail. 51 per cent is not enough to win a border poll, he argued.
“I don`t think you can do this by bare majority…One half of the sectarian divide will `win` and the other side will `lose`. Will Dublin be landed with an entire country in a state of civil war?
“You may accuse me of recommending surrender to the mere anticipation of loyalist violence. Yes I am.”
In weaponizing the threat of loyalist violence as leverage against accepting a narrow majority referendum result in favour of Irish unity Parris joins a growing list of political figures prepared to undermine democracy and the principle of consent. Last month Irish Labour Party leader Jack O`Connor raised concerns about a narrow result in favour of unity leading to violence hinting that a higher vote than 50 per cent plus one be required. Tragically, the late Seamus Mallon gave oxygen to anti-democratic attempts to redefine the consent principle. In his 2019 book `A shared Home Place` he was forthright in rejecting the premise contained in the Good Friday Agreement that a simple majority for Irish unity would suffice.
“I have come increasingly to the view that the Good Friday Agreement of 50% plus one for unity will not give us the kind of agreed Ireland we seek. Put simply we have to find some more inclusive and generous way to quantify consent.”
Quite how a redefinition of the consent principle was generous and inclusive to those desiring an end to partition he did not say. Placing illiberal obstacles in the way of reunification has become a fashionable form of anti-democracy. Especially when it is camouflaged in the language of community relations and the need for greater reconciliation between unionism and nationalism. In October 2017, then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar flying directly in the face of the GFA said he was not in favour of changing the North’s constitutional status on a 50 percent plus one basis. “I wouldn’t like us to get to the point whereby we are changing the constitutional position here in Northern Ireland on a 50% plus 1 basis”, he told BBC Spotlight. Only a fierce backlash from northern Nationalists forced Varadkar to row back from his unwise attempt to renegotiate a key element of the GFA.
After loyalist street violence in opposition to the Protocol, the Irish Sunday Independent used the riots as an opportunity to warn against the consent criteria laid out in the GFA for unity referendum. It featured a series of articles hostile to a border poll and its editorial made clear its apprehension about proceeding with Irish unity on the basis of 50 plus 1. The GFA endorsed by the people of Ireland in 1998 was always unpopular with the DUP but the frequency of attacks on the border poll consent provision in the GFA from political figures and newspapers in Dublin who professed to support the GFA is striking. Partitionists appear spooked. Now that the unity debate is centre stage opponents of reunification want to change the goalposts. By arguing for the insertion of a supermajority threshold they move politics to an undemocratic and unworkable space.
Democrats must be vigilant to the fact that large sections of the London and Dublin establishments given half a chance would erase the border poll consent principle in a heartbeat. Recent statements by Jim O`Callaghan and Neale Richmond of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael reiterating support for the consent principle are to be welcomed. It is concerning however, that they felt the need to have to have to publicly restate it. Equally welcome is the UCL Constitution Unit statement publicly ruling out any requirement for a supermajority in a border poll as a clear breach of the GFA. Clear, unequivocal statements like these are helpful but they are unlikely to deter continued attempts to block a border poll. For instance, commentator Andy Pollack not only still insists on a super majority requirement. He now accuses the academics who wrote the UCL Constitution Unit report on the future conduct of a referendum of lacking balance and a unionist perspective, “leaving them open to charges of pro-nationalist partiality.” Expect much more this muck to be thrown as we move closer to a border poll.
There is a tendency among sections of the Dublin media to view the border poll debate solely through the prism of unionism. A recent piece by Steven Collins in the Irish Times, `Border Poll talk fails to take account of Loyalist anger` is a typical. In the article below he wrote,” Demand for an early Poll is further encouragement to those bent on creating mayhem”. This line is repeated ad nauseam in the pages of the Irish Times and Irish Independent yet there is absolutely no evidence anyone is calling for an immediate or early poll. The overwhelming majority of unity supporters have gone out of their way to stress the importance of debate, discussion and planning long before a border poll debate takes place yet time and time again that point is simply ignored to suit an anti-unity narrative.
The ‘now’s not the time for a border poll debate` mantra is an attempt to maintain the status quo camouflaged in the language of the peace process. It is dishonest, denies the democratic process and impugns border poll supporters. A particularly toxic example of this approach appeared on the Irish American website `Irish Central` recently. Veteran Dublin journalist John Spain appeared to link any discussion of a border poll to IRA violence of the past and the current non-violent civic campaigns for unity.
“You cannot bomb a million unionists into changing their minds and joining the Republic… Coercion by continued calls for a border poll will not do it either”.
To so spectacularly misrepresent border poll campaigners in this way is deeply unfair and harmful. The GFA gave prominence to the principle of consent and affirmed the right to bring about a united Ireland by consent. The legitimacy of that aspiration is absolute, and it does a disservice to misrepresent or demonise it. That some critics stoop so low in attacking border poll campaigners is also a measure of how far the unity campaign has come.