Working towards Irish Unity




Labour’s role in preparing for unity

The British Labour party are now consistently performing considerably higher in the opinion polls than the Conservatives. According to one recent poll Labour are predicted to win over 400 seats which would be a landslide victory on a similar scale to that enjoyed by Tony Blair in 1997. It is clear that Labour will have a bulging in-tray with many competing priorities and limited funds to address them. Sir Keir Starmer will also want to repair the damage which has been done to Britain’s reputation in the world and to its relations with neighbouring states. There have been many causes for this decline with Britain’s shock vote to leave the European Union at the centre of things. Five prime ministers since the Brexit vote in 2016 hasn’t helped matters. There has been a misguided expectation within the British Government that the European Union would give a preferential deal to a departing member.  The vain hope that the USA, Canada and other Commonwealth countries would provide favourable terms, in rapidly agreed trade deals was naïve at best. The reference to Empire 2.0 was cringeworthy, if not outright offensive.

But there is an opportunity for a new Labour government to make a positive impact on the European and global stage. There will be limited bandwith to deal with many issues and the next British Government will inherit an extremely challenging fiscal environment. Government debt was equivalent to 98.3% of GDP in March 2024 and the Government borrowed £121 billion in 2023/24. We know that all the main British political parties are opposed to Scottish independence and a Labour party which is resurgent in Scotland will be used as part of the rationale for continuing to refuse demands by the SNP government in Scotland, for another independent referendum. There is no clear legal route to another vote which those who favour Scottish independence can reference. The loss of Scotland would pose an existential threat to the UK state. Britain would literally and figuratively be a smaller place, as Scotland shares the same land mass with England and Wales. The nuclear deterrent is currently based in Scottish waters and Britain’s status as a nuclear power is one of the reasons why the UK has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. 

Tony Blair spent a lot of time focused on constitutional issues in his first term of government, including securing the Good Friday Agreement. Sir Keir Starmer could also make an impact in this area, by focusing on providing a future-proofed solution to the problems caused to Northern Ireland by Brexit. Such an approach would help to reset his relations with European neighbours. This can be achieved by showing that he will not seek to use Northern Ireland and its relationship with the rest of Ireland as a bargaining chip, in negotiations with the EU. By acting as a safeguard for the Good Friday Agreement, he will engender goodwill from both the EU and North America, where this peace accord is still held in high regard. He is a barrister and former Director of the Public Prosecution Service, so we can hopefully look forward to a British Government led by him which will not suggest that the UK should leave the ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights). This would be a positive change from the comments of some current Conservative politicians. 

The Good Friday Agreement recognised that Irish unity is a legitimate choice and it confirmed that the British Government would enable a vote for a United Ireland when there is an evidenced desire for constitutional change by the people of Northern Ireland. It was therefore a welcome development when Peter Kyle as Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in September 2022 indicated that Labour would set out the criteria for a border poll when in government. However he has since been replaced by Hilary Benn who has backtracked on this commitment and stated that he would not set out the criteria for a border poll. He attempted to justify this change in approach by claiming that the calling of a border poll comes down to the political judgment of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. 

Politically Labour is adopting a ‘steady as she goes’ approach to the forthcoming UK general election campaign. Hilary Benn is seen as a heavy hitter and a safe pair of hands. He is not going to say or do anything before the election which can undermine this approach. However it will be a different ballgame after the election is over and Labour is in government. Sinn Féin may well be returned as the largest party from Northern Ireland in the Westminster elections. This would complete a hat trick of results to add to the local and Assembly elections where they are also the largest party. 

Labour in government could indicate that as stipulated in the Good Friday Agreement, a border poll shall be called by the Secretary of State “if at any time it appears likely to him 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”. They could state that in light of the Westminster results in Northern Ireland, they will set out the criteria for a border poll. There could be a caveat to say that they do not believe that the criteria for calling a referendum have been met as yet. But in terms of good governance, they are setting out the criteria and will track whether these have been met over the following years. Hilary Benn has expressed his scepticism about the validity of using opinion polls to determine whether the conditions have been met. He could ask the Assembly to vote on a motion as to whether there should be a border poll. In those circumstances would Alliance abstain or vote for democracy? It would be hard to imagine that they would vote against there being a border poll given a majority of their members favour Irish Unity and also that a majority of Alliance/Green/Other voters also favour a United Ireland.

Instead Alliance could potentially vote in an Assembly motion for a border poll while stating that they are doing so because it is for the electorate of Northern Ireland to decide which constitutional future they wish to have. If they voted against a referendum taking place, given demographic and electoral result changes, it would be hard for them to resist accusations of favouring the status quo and effectively being unionists. The next Assembly elections, due in 2027 are likely to confirm Sinn Féin’s position as the largest party in Northern Ireland and by then a new Irish Government may well have asked the British Government formally to set out the criteria for a border poll and a date for a referendum. This can be set out in the context of wanting to be able to plan in advance of a vote on constitutional change, to avoid the chaos of Brexit. 

We know that Labour do not want to be portrayed as a party seeking to undermine Brexit. They recently rejected, like the current British Government, a reasonable offer for young British citizens to have free mobility across the EU for up to four years.

The beauty of Labour setting out the criteria for a border poll and preparing both for the referendum and a transition to unity, is that this can be explained as simplifying Brexit for Britain, Ireland and the wider EU. There are no votes for Labour or the Conservatives in Northern Ireland. 

We can expect that there will be international encouragement for both the setting out of criteria and the calling of a border poll. Both the USA and the EU made clear during the Brexit negotiations that there would be no trade deal with Britain, unless the Good Friday Agreement was protected. There is the possibility of a Sinn Féin led government in Ireland and we already have a Sinn Féin led government in Northern Ireland. While reunification will require a cross-party approach across Ireland, just as Brexit required, such an outcome will add momentum to the calls for a border poll. However even if the current coalition government in Ireland is re-elected, or some variation of it, the debate on unity will continue to develop. Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have shown an adaptability in their policies throughout their existence and how they engage on the topic of reunification should be no different. 

Simon Harris may have said shortly before he became Taoiseach that Irish unity was a legitimate aspiration but not a priority.

But we have to view that in the context of him taking over as leader of a coalition government which is entering the fifth and final year of its mandate. He is understandably focused on securing some key wins before Irish voters go to the polls to elect the next set of TDs. The next Irish government which must be elected by March 2025 at the latest, will be planning for its priorities over a full five year term. I think that, regardless of which parties form the next coalition under the Single Transferable Vote electoral system, which is used in Ireland, it is likely to ask the British government to set out the criteria and to formally indicate that they are preparing for a border poll and the resulting reunification which may arise from such a vote. 

Sir Keir Starmer will be able to show a statesmanlike approach by agreeing to set out the criteria and also planning for a border poll and the possible outcomes which arise from that. Any savings from unity and resulting reduction of funding to Northern Ireland for the British Government will take time to be realised. But the immediate goodwill which will be shown to both Ireland and to Britain for facilitating the democratic vote for unity – as envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement, can be leveraged immediately, to the benefit of both Ireland and Britain.