Working towards Irish Unity




Major’s right and Leo’s wrong: It’s time to set out border poll criteria

It was the matter-of-fact tone that struck me.

Sir John Major, when asked whether he thought it was time to set out the requirements for holding a border poll on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, described it as a ‘credible demand.’

Those of us familiar with the former Conservative Prime Minister’s habit of linguistic understatement (things in his day were always ‘not disagreeable’) will instantly understand that to be a ‘yes.’ 

He was speaking at the Irish Embassy in London last week, reflecting on his contribution to the peace process up until May 1997, before he was unceremoniously dumped onto the pavement by voters, following Tony Blair’s landslide victory.

Major was responding to The Guardian’s excellent Ireland correspondent, Rory Carroll, in a question and answer session, adding that any criteria needed agreement between the British and Irish governments and that winning such a vote was ‘further away’ than campaigners for Irish unity might think.

As I say, it was the lack of any attempt to deflect the question by hiding behind a weaselly formulation that I found most interesting. No attempt to claim ‘now is not the time.’ And interesting that he automatically included Dublin in the decision-making equation, implicitly dismissing the silly belief that some have that a decision on calling a border poll is the responsibility of the British Secretary of State.

Talking of weaselly formulations, Leo Varadkar has also been speaking about a border poll. Rebutting an argument that literally no-one is making – that there should be an immediate vote – the Taoisech poured cold water over the prospect.

‘The push for a border poll, I think, is counterproductive,’ he told the Irish Times the other day. ‘The conditions are not right’ he claimed. Instead, the priority was to get the devolved institutions ‘functioning and functioning well.’

On the last point, no-one seriously demurs. You can wish to see a restoration of the Good Friday Agreement bodies while still articulating support for an eventual border poll, despite what Varadkar believes.

So, a tale of two Tories. 

Major wants to keep Northern Ireland in the UK, while Varadkar (nominally) wants to see Irish unity. The former recognises that the issue is now mainstream and gaining velocity. The latter, a disciple of reductive, Free State groupthink, is keen for that day never to arrive.

Major’s instincts are more acute. Every British politician connected with Northern Ireland will now be asked whether they agree with him. Many will do so. (Labour’s spokesman, Peter Kyle, has already committed a future Labour government to setting out border poll criteria). Major’s intervention nudges the dial further. 

The calculation has shifted following the local elections. British politics is binary: Elections are either won or lost. Sinn Fein were the clear winners. The view in Westminster will increasingly settle around the belief that a legitimate demand for a border poll might crystalise in the next parliament between 2024-2029.

Possibly in a scenario where the governing party has no overall majority. Add to that the situation in Scotland, with the SNP – their recent travails aside – still potential kingmakers with 45-50 MPs in the House of Commons.

Can Westminster at its weakest cope with two constitutional fires ablaze? 

Does it even want to?

Kevin Meagher is author of A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable and How it Will Come About and What A Bloody Awful Country: Northern Ireland’s Century of Division