Now that Boris Johnson is running 10 Downing Street and appears determined to impose a no-deal Brexit, it was inevitable that speculation about a Border poll on Irish unity would soon follow. And it has.
So, it is time to remind people of an article in the Belfast Telegraph that an old friend, Paul Nolan, wrote in mid-June which subjects the matter to the sort of tough scrutiny it really deserves.
His conclusion? That we are a long way off from a point where a British Secretary of State could credibly call for a Border poll, and that even if he or she did order one, those who think the outcome, a united Ireland, is almost a certainty – thanks to an inevitable Catholic demographic advantage – may have got it badly wrong.
Journalists reporting on the North should be required by their editors to keep a copy on their person, to consult whenever the feverish impulse to forecast impending Irish unity – backstop or no backstop – threatens to overcome them.
Here it is:
A referendum on Irish unity may appear more likely now than ever, but that doesn’t make it inevitable, writes Paul Nolan
It is becoming hard to keep up with the opinion polls on the prospects for a border poll. An exit poll conducted by RTE/TG4 on May 25 showed 65% of voters in the south would now support a united Ireland.
This followed on from the annual Red C poll on May 2, which showed an increase in the percentage of southern voters who feel that Brexit makes a united Ireland more likely – up from 44% in March 2018 to 50% in this year’s survey.
The debate has been further amplified by the publication of Seamus Mallon’s memoir A Shared Home Place, which warns of the dangers of a border poll conducted on a winner-takes-all basis, and argues instead for the necessity of winning “parallel consent” from unionists and nationalists for any form of united Ireland.
Whether one likes it or not, a border poll, in whatever form, is now on the agenda. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. The frequency with which the idea is now discussed can sometimes make it appear to be an inevitability, but the reality is more complex.
In the provisions for a referendum on Irish unity as set out first in the Good Friday Agreement and then given legislative form in the Northern Ireland Act (1998), it is the Secretary of State who decides when a border poll is to be called.
Now that it is being talked up as an imminent reality, it is worth looking at the actual wording in the Agreement, because what appears at first sight to be a simple statement of fact leaves much open to interpretation.
In Schedule 1 of the 1998 Act, it is stated that: “… the Secretary of State shall exercise the power under paragraph 1 if at any time it appears likely to him (sic) 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.”
Let’s look more closely at that key phrase “(if) it appears likely to him”. What does that mean? How would he or she know if it was likely or not? There are three possible grounds for making the call, but all three are deeply problematic.
The first and most obvious way to find out if people want a united Ireland is to ask them. The standard way to do that is through an opinion poll, but unfortunately opinion polls have developed a credibility problem.
If they were to be believed, the UK would have rejected the Leave campaigners in 2016 and remained in the EU.
What’s more, Hillary Clinton would be President of the United States.
In fact the day before the US presidential election the most authoritative polling predictions, from the New York Times to Nate Silver, put her chances of victory at between 70% and 99%.
These examples don’t mean opinion polls have lost their usefulness; they do mean that most people will factor in a higher margin of error than they might have done previously.
So, what margin would be required, and in how many polls, and over what duration, before it could be considered “likely” that voters in a real voting situation would choose a united Ireland? This is a point that has not yet been debated let alone resolved.
But if anything can be considered likely, it is that the first poll to show a majority of 50% plus one will result in calls for the border poll to be run immediately – and any caution on the part of the Secretary of State will be decried as a broken promise.
The Secretary of State could, of course, insist on using a different measure, and the second option would be to wait until demographic trends show a Catholic majority.
The most recent figures, published in the Labour Force Religion Survey on January 31 this year, show that the Protestant/Catholic seesaw is continuing to tilt towards Catholics.
In the period between 1990 and 2017 the percentage of Protestants aged 16 and over dropped from 56% to 42%, while the proportion of Catholics in the same age group increased by three percentage points from 38% to 41%. That’s close.
It now looks like the Catholic community will be the larger community by the time of the next census, but that’s not the same as being a majority, if by majority we mean over 50%.
A closer look at the age cohorts in the Labour Force Religion Survey shows the growth momentum of the Catholic community is slowing and, furthermore, the real growth has been in another category – those who do not self-identify as either Catholic or Protestant.
The proportion of the population classified as “other/non-determined” has more than doubled (from 6% to 17%) over this period (and in the 16-24 cohort it has more than trebled, from 7% to 22%).
If this trend were to continue, it may block the Catholic community from crossing the 50% line. Catholics may emerge as the largest of the three main population groups, but still not be a majority.
And, of course, not all Catholics are nationalists, a point that is generally accepted but frequently forgotten when forecasts are made.
There have been many such forecasts recently, conjuring up a nationalist majority, a prediction that relies upon a dangerous elision of the terms “Catholic” and “nationalist”.
If past voting patterns provide any guide to future electoral behaviour, then despite the increased number of Catholics, a nationalist majority is very far off indeed.
The long-term trend shows little or no growth. In June 1998, in that optimistic period immediately after the Good Friday Agreement, the combined nationalist vote (that is the SDLP vote and the Sinn Fein vote taken together) stood at 39.7%.
In the most recent Assembly elections, in March 2017, that percentage had remained more or less static at 39.8%, and in the local government elections earlier this month the total nationalist vote, including both the new Aontu party and independent nationalist candidates, dipped to 37.7%.
In fact, over the past 21 years the nationalist vote has only occasionally tipped over the 40% line and seems unlikely to exceed the magical 50% in the foreseeable future.
As we move towards the Brexit endgame, we can expect the demands for a border poll to increase in frequency and volume.
But that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. There’s trouble ahead.
- Dr Paul Nolan is an independent researcher who writes on the Northern Ireland peace process and post-conflict societies