One of the curious aspects of the Border Poll debate is how often apparently democratic commentators think it uncontroversial to propose a unionist veto in a border referendum dressed up as conflict resolution. British junior minister for NI Steve Baker is the latest character to argue this anti-democratic position. He was speaking at the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly yesterday in Kildare. Explaining how he now regrets the UK Brexit vote did not require support of 60 per cent of those who voted – he went on to suggest that in order to strengthen its legitimacy a vote for Irish Unity should need a similar supermajority in the North to carry.
Of course, like many British ministers sent to the North before him Mr. Baker is happy to play fast and loose with the concept of democracy as if it is something to be bargained and bartered. But his idea won’t fly. This is not 1921 or 1969. It ain’t going to happen. The pro- United Ireland lobby is too strong today. Unlike previously, United Irelanders will no longer be treated as second class citizens – those days are gone and they`re not coming back. Nonetheless it is striking just how often a varied range of anti-democrats regularly attempt to fly this illiberal kite.
Recently, academic Padraig O’Malley gathered a number of pro-Union voices arguing for a change of the goal posts and supermajority in his book, Perils and Prospects of a United Ireland. And then there was Ian junior and his supermajority bill submitted to the Speaker of Parliament. Before that, writing in the Spectator former Tory MP and Times columnist Mathew Parris wrote a piece titled My Fears about an Irish Border Poll. 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.”
Using the threat of loyalist violence as their excuse Parris joins a long list of anti-democrats happy to jettison the principle of consent when it comes to Irish unity. The then 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. The late Seamus Mallon writing his book A shared Home Place in 2019 was forthright in rejecting the democratic premise contained in the Good Friday Agreement that a simple majority for Irish unity sufficed.
“I have come increasingly to the view that the Good Friday 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” he argued.
Previously, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar 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 the principle of consent.
Arlene Foster’s pro-Union thinktank (which has all but disappeared) in one of its rare events hosted a speaker who argued violence was likely if a United Ireland happened. Last month the leader of the TUV made the same point. The Irish Sunday Independent in an editorial revealed apprehension about proceeding with Irish unity on the basis of 50 plus 1, warning about the danger of violence. The difference though is while scaremongering and attempts to rig the system in favour of unionism worked in the past it won’t work anymore. The United Ireland movement is too big, strong, vibrant and confident today. To paraphrase Christy – We are a river flowing.
In a sign of how much the unity debate has gathered momentum it was heartening to hear Leo Varadkar say that he hoped to see a United Ireland and expected to see it in his lifetime. When Steve Baker and Chris Heaton-Harris criticised his remarks as unhelpful it was brilliant to see Leo hit right back with gusto publicly declaring his aspiration and expectation of Reunification. A response that had United Irelanders everywhere punch the air with delight. Likewise, as much as the late Seamus Mallon`s comments about a simple majority criteria were disappointing and in previous years the SDLP dithered on the Unity question that’s not the case anymore. It was equally brilliant to witness the speed with which the leader of the SDLP was out of the blocks to put Steve Baker in his place making it absolutely clear there would be no changing of the goal posts regarding a border poll. As Colum put it, “If we only require a simple majority to stay in the UK, then a simple majority is what’s needed to leave.