Donnacha Ó Beacháin (Dublin City University)
The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) anticipated the need for constitutional change and one of its many achievements is that it gave us an agreed mechanism for how that could be implemented. The GFA’s success was in large part due to nationalists and republicans agreeing to accept Northern Ireland, despite its artificiality, as a unit for self-determination. A crucial component too was the provision for a “border poll”, committing both Governments in an internationally binding agreement to legislate for reunification if a simple majority of Northern Ireland’s electorate voted in favour.
Brexit, along with changing demographics, has ignited a debate on whether Northern Ireland might opt for a united Ireland and, by extension, re-entry into the European Union. A key architect of the GFA, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, has recently said that a referendum on a united Ireland should be held in 2028, on the thirtieth anniversary of the historic accord.
Since the Brexit referendum, however, there have been some high-profile political interventions that maintain that, even should a majority in Northern Ireland opt to unite with the rest of the island, it could not be countenanced, as it would be contrary to unionist wishes. For many unionists the question is not, as was frequently proclaimed over many decades, Northern Ireland’s right to self-determination but rather a permanent right for their supporters never to be subjected to majority rule anywhere in Ireland. From this perspective, Northern Ireland is a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Unionist preferences will, accordingly, always trump concurrent majorities in the United Kingdom, the Republic and Northern Ireland that favour a united Ireland.
When it comes to unionist definitions of ‘majority rule’, such elasticity is hardly novel. When Northern Ireland voted against Brexit, for example, the DUP pointed out that it mattered little because Northern Ireland was part of the UK, which had voted to leave the EU. However, that logic has not inhibited unionists from rejecting the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and Northern Ireland protocol despite these being negotiated by the British Government.
Some leaders and commentators in the Republic have also maintained that unification should not be countenanced if “only” a simple majority in Northern Ireland, as specified in the Good Friday Agreement, would endorse it. A united Ireland, it is maintained, must be preceded by unity amongst the people of Northern Ireland. In 2017, the then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar mused that 70 per cent would constitute a better threshold than a simple majority for changing Northern Ireland’s constitutional position. ‘Bouncing Ulster Protestants into a unitary Irish state against their will would’, Varadkar argued, ‘be as grievous a wrong as was abandoning a large Catholic minority in the North on partition.’ Worse, it risked unionist ‘alienation and even a return to violence’. Earlier this year, the Irish Examiner editorialised that ‘any eventual vote on reunification will be traumatic, volatile, and alive with threat’ and concluded that ‘if a sizeable minority are, as changing demographics suggest they might be, pushed into an entity they reject, then chaos beckons. It may be sensible, and reassuring, to consider setting a requirement of, say, 66% of any future vote to endorse any new reality’.
However, referenda reflect divisions as much as they create them. A border poll will be divisive because Northern Ireland is divided – and has been since its creation. Just as the North’s current constitutional status is divisive, any proposed change will provoke conflicting stances. Most referenda in Ireland – be they about abortion, divorce or marriage equality – have been divisive. We hold referenda to establish the number of citizens on one side of an argument versus another, not on the assumption that no division exists.
Blurring the line between ‘majority’ and ‘unionist’ moves the goalposts set down in the GFA in a very fundamental sense and subverts the peace process the Belfast accord was designed to sustain. Indeed, rejecting the principle that a majority should decide the constitutional status of Northern Ireland undermines the legitimacy of the status quo given that nationalists are the greater number in four of the North’s six counties, along with the two largest cities, Belfast and Derry.
Invoking the spectre of unionist truculence or, worse, loyalist violence is the argument that justified partition in the first place. Assuming that majority unionist agreement is unlikely to precede a united Ireland, this argument presents a rationale for permanent partition. This was not the object of the Good Friday Agreement, which was consciously open-ended about Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. Put simply, one cannot credibly present oneself as a supporter of the GFA while rejecting one of its most basic tenets – that the constitutional future of Northern Ireland will be decided by the majority of people who live there.
Donnacha Ó Beacháin is Professor of Politics at the School of Law and Government, DCU. His monograph From Partition to Brexit: The Irish Government and Northern Ireland was the 2019 winner of the Brian Farrell prize awarded by the Political Studies Association of Ireland for the best book in political science.