Nearly a quarter of a century on, we are all pretty familiar with the term in the Good Friday Agreement.
There can only be a border poll on Irish unity if it appears ‘likely’ to the Secretary of State that ‘a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.’
It has always seemed to me that the most useful way of testing this precondition is by assessing the voting pattern across Northern Ireland’s three sets of elections – to the assembly, Westminster and local councils.
Yet there is hardly what you would call alacrity in Westminster or Dublin for doing so. If there was, the prospect of a border poll would now be coming into view.
Since 2019, there has been a majority of Nationalists representing Northern Ireland in the House of Commons, with Sinn Fein and the SDLP cooperating, adroitly, to take Unionist scalps in Belfast North and Belfast South.
But although Sinn Fein was eight percent ahead of the DUP in this May’s assembly elections, the combined Unionist bloc outscored Nationalists, albeit by a single percentage point (42/41 per cent) or around 5-6,000 votes.
However, research from the assembly into the second preference votes of Alliance and Green candidates suggests they break disproportionately for the Nationalist side. In both cases, the margin in votes transferring to Sinn Fein and the SDLP was 9.3% higher than the votes defaulting to the DUP, UUP and TUV.
If, for argument’s sake, you add that to the 41% of first preference votes for Nationalists, then the case for a border poll to test the mood in Northern Ireland becomes pretty much irrefutable.
But let’s roll the dice again.
Next May sees elections to Northern Ireland’s eleven councils with all 462 seats up for election. When they were last contested in 2019, the Unionist bloc – DUP, UUP and TUV – secured 30 more seats than SF, SDLP and People Before Profit.
A reversal of this position would send another powerful message that actual votes cast in real elections equates with a demand to see constitutional change.
Given the tightening arithmetic in recent elections, perhaps we should be encouraging candidates in next year’s locals to spell out their position – whether they are in favour of Irish unity or maintaining the constitutional status quo?