Imagine people in Britain were told Brexit would not happen because only a narrow majority had voted for it? That the issue was so divisive it required a supermajority of 60 percent before it passed? Or how about divorce in the south of Ireland which won by less than 1 percent of the vote, 50.28% in favour and 49.72% against? Would it be acceptable to change the rules and block Brexit or divorce because neither achieved a supermajority? The requirement is of course anti-democratic yet its proponents increasingly promote it in relation to the Border Poll question. Former Tory MP and Times columnist Mathew Parris wrote in the Spectator,
“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”.
How a redefinition of consent making pro-Unity votes less equal to pro-Union ones is ‘inclusive and generous’ he didn’t say. The former leader of the Irish Labour Party also expressed opposition to 50 percent + 1, as did Leo Varadkar who labelled it dangerous. Only after a public backlash did both row back from support for a new Unionist veto.
Inflating the risk of violence
Yet the supermajority is back on the table again, courtesy of Pádraig O’Malley’s Perils and Prospects of a United Ireland. The book explores the factors that might lead to a Border referendum and the challenges both the North and the Republic would face. Interviewing 97 political players he takes a temperature check of opinions North and South as we approach the possible endgame of partition. The book has much to say but it’s his rejection of 50 per cent + 1 as not enough for a United Ireland which stands out.
A supermajority he argues is necessary to avoid loyalist violence in the context of a narrow majority for Irish Unity. To be clear, unionists will not require a supermajority to win the day but United Irelanders will. O’Malley quotes the late Seamus Mallon of the SDLP:
“If we have a 50 per cent + 1 vote for unity, that is when the real problems for the whole island will begin. I believe there is a real risk, based on the precedents of Irish history, that it could lead to a resumption of violence, this time led by the loyalists. I believe Dublin and other Southern cities and towns would not escape that loyalist-led violence, which would be aimed at making the new all-Ireland solution unworkable, in the way loyalist bombings of Dublin and Monaghan in May 1974 were aimed at making the Sunningdale Agreement unworkable. Will a narrow vote for unity lead to harmony and friendship as laid down by the new Article Three of the Irish Constitution, between unionists and nationalists? I very much doubt it.” (p109)
Responding to the clarification by the Working Group of British and Irish academics, led by University College London’s Constitution Unit, that the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) envisaged a simple 50 per cent +1 criteria to win a border referendum, O’Malley warns us that loyalists may not accept a United Ireland even if people vote for it. Following warnings by loyalist community workers about instability, he cautions,
“Harping on about 50 per cent + 1 as the defining metric for a Secretary of State’s calling of a border poll, no matter what the political circumstances prevailing in the two jurisdictions, is madness.” (p82).
For O’Malley, violence and sectarianism seem always to be associated with a border poll and those campaigning for one are viewed as reckless or naive. Loyalist rioting at Lanark Way in opposition to the Protocol is used as evidence of the danger in ignoring the potential instability. Car bombs in Dublin are referenced more than once. Sinn Fein are accused of spooking loyalism/unionism with rash demands for an ‘immediate border poll’. The GFA’s criteria for a border referendum is judged to be unrealistic.
“A referendum presaging a 50 per cent +1 outcome taking place in circumstances of social turbulence, rampant sectarianism and sporadic bouts of low-level violence would undoubtedly not meet the conditions the Working Group enunciates.” (p83).
Others have been drawing upon similar arguments to O’Malley. Not long ago an Irish Sunday Independent editorial raised the spectre of loyalist violence as an argument against a Unity referendum. Recently, the DUP proposed a Bill in the British Parliament that a supermajority be required for constitutional change. Last month Arlene Foster’s Pro-Union ‘Together UK’ Think-Tank hosted an event which warned a move to a United Ireland could lead to violence and a new ‘Troubles’. A fortnight ago the News Letter carried a warning from a former political adviser to David Trimble that it was unrealistic to ever expect unionists to be marched into a United Ireland against their will.
Warnings of loyalist resistance to constitutional change are on the up as they attempt to move the democratic goalposts. Note the comments of Danny Kennedy and Jeffrey Donaldson after Sinn Fein’s spectacular victory in the local council elections. Complaining it was unfair that republicans were so successful in Slieve Gullion and in the interest of good community relations SF should not be permitted to win so many seats. It would be funny if they weren’t so serious. Go to Jamie Bryson’s website and check out the DUP leader’s little-discussed piece explaining his preference for a ‘parallel consent’ mechanism to approve constitutional change rather than a referendum.
It’s not surprising that hardline partitionists try to thwart democracy. It was always thus. More surprising is that an academic travels down this illiberal cul-de-sac. Describing the ‘nationalist/republican community’ as dishonest for insisting the GFA criteria of 50 percent plus 1 be honoured in a referendum, he writes,
“The dishonesty extends to how the consent formula of 50 percent + 1 is treated. It is invoked without a context as if alone divested from other provisions of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, a pristine pinnacle heralding unity, and without reference to the paramount importance of all strands of the agreement functioning or the caveat in the Irish constitution that reunification must take place ‘in harmony and friendship’. There is no acknowledgement that that phrase is as much a constitutional imperative as the consent formulation itself.” (p325).
Here he presents two rationales for vetoing a successful Unity poll. Flagging up threats of instability and loyalist violence in the event of a narrow yes vote for unity allows him to dismiss 50% + 1 insufficient, thus requiring a supermajority. He then introduces a new veto by referencing the phrase, ‘in harmony and friendship’, from article 3 of the Irish constitution which outlines the aspiration to a United Ireland.
“The phrase ‘uniting the people on the island of Ireland’ in ‘harmony and friendship’ in article 3 of the Irish constitution surely precludes any notion that opinion polls indicating a small margin for unity would meet that constitutional requirement.” (p75).
On pages 83, 109, 304 and 325 he returns to the ‘harmony and friendship’ phrase in article 3 of the Irish Constitution, in an attempt to reinforce his opposition to 50 per cent + 1. Put simply, if unionists/loyalists get angry in the event of losing a border poll vote, there can be no United Ireland because the constitution states it can only happen in circumstances of harmony and friendship.
The logical consequence of his argument is to recommend surrender to the mere anticipation of even unionist anger, never mind protests or violence. Requiring a new supermajority for O’Malley is about limiting tensions and divisions. It’s worth reminding Padraig that referendums by their very nature are divisive, be it Brexit or Scottish independence. The idea that we can move both sides in a Border Poll referendum to a place where we are holding hands and singing Kumbaya to each other is for the birds.
Offering another hostage to fortune he uses an interview with the leader of Alliance to argue,
“The key requirement, as Nomi Long points out, before a peaceful border poll can even be contemplated, should be a B/GFA that is functioning through its three stands.” (p110).
The dogs in the street know that setting more obstacles in the way of a border poll creates perverse incentives to hardline unionism that will make non-cooperation and violence more and not less likely. For example, right now the DUP refuse to sit in Stormont. By O’Malley’s logic, if they continue to boycott it by refusing to work Strand 1of the GFA indefinitely then we are stuck and a border poll can never happen. The insistence that the GFA is functioning through all its three strands offers another gift horse veto to hardline, intransigent unionism.
By constantly flagging up the potential of instability during a border poll O’Malley creates perverse incentives to ‘No Surrender’ Unionism to threaten or warn of violence. Loyalists are already using dire warnings of instability in the event of a borderpoll as a strategy against a unity. The clear losers in this scenario are not only United Irelanders but democracy itself.
Rigging the system
Throughout the book, roadblocks placed in the way of Irish Unity are presented as confidence-building measures designed to reassure unionism and strengthen reconciliation. Unionists are broadly viewed sympathetically as unsure of their place, isolated, vulnerable and in need of greater understanding from nationalism. United Irelanders (Sinn Fein in particular) are viewed as too demanding, naive, reckless, unintelligent, ungenerous and glib about the potential for violence during a border poll. O’Malley claims to be motivated by conflict resolution but what comes across is less a promotion of reconciliation than an invitation to illiberalism.
Everyone involved in the constitutional debate should treat each other with sensitivity and respect. But a level playing field on which to conduct our politics is not an unreasonable expectation. This requires that every person’s vote to be equal at the ballot box. Supermajorities/unionist vetoes or threats of violence are morally and politically unacceptable and should be denounced by all democrats. A hundred years ago, via loyalist and British state violence, nationalists were forced into a partitioned statelet against their will, a situation which was rigged against them. As we edge closer to the endgame of partition and a border poll, I’d say politely but firmly to Padraig, the days of rigging the system against United Irelanders in the North are gone and they’re not coming back.
Perils and Prospects of a United Ireland by Padraig O’Malley was published by The Lilliput Press in March 2023.