Op Ed: A united Ireland will depend on long, careful planning- and on finding out who can actually vote

Referendum Opinion Piece Irish Indepndent


A united Ireland will depend on long, careful planning- and on finding out who can actually vote

As it stands, the referendum on a United Ireland may be decided before a single vote is cast. Under the Good Friday Agreement, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has not only the sole power to call a referendum, but also has the sole power to decide who gets to vote in the referendum.

This little-known fact is central to the future of this island. To date the Secretary of State has declined to make clear who will be allowed to vote in a referendum on a United Ireland and also declined to produce a policy on how it would be determined that a majority are in favour of a United Ireland.

Would it be based on recent election results, opinion polls or a combination of both?

Under the Good Friday Agreement, the Secretary must call a referendum when they believe the majority of people are in favour of a United Ireland.

If the Secretary of State has not decided who is entitled to vote in a referendum how, logically, can he or she say that the majority are, or are not, in favour of a United Ireland?

All these questions were recently highlighted in a little reported on High Court case in Belfast that I attended and published a research report on working alongside a group of legal experts. Remarkably, the case was taken against the Secretary of State by Raymond McCord, a Unionist and victims’ rights campaigner. His goal in bring the case was to force the Secretary of State to formulate and publish a definitive policy on how it would be determined a majority were in favour of a United Ireland and under what circumstances a referendum would be called.


So why did Raymond pursue this case, even though he is not in favour of a United Ireland? Raymond took the case, he said, aiming to “remove the politics of Orange and Green and to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement is respected”.

Currently in a UK referendum, only British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens aged 18 or over on polling day are entitled to vote. However, in the previous Scottish independence referendum, those entitled to vote also included EU citizens and those aged 16 and over.

That referendum was lost 45% to 55%. A YouGov survey found that only 51% of Scottish-born respondents voted ‘No’ whereas a striking 74% of those born elsewhere in the UK voted ‘No’ as did 59% of those born outside the UK. The referendum in Scotland clearly shows the key importance of deciding who is allowed to vote in a referendum in determining its ultimate outcome.

For example, if the Secretary of State decided that only UK citizens of 18 and over should be allowed to vote in Northern Ireland’s referendum, then as we have seen in the Scottish referendum, this could potentially have a significant impact on the result. Northern Ireland has a tragic history of denying people the right to vote, the future referendum on a United Ireland cannot be another chapter in that story.

The Rt. Hon. Sir Paul Girvan stated  in his ruling on the case that while having a policy on how and when to call a referendum “would be sensible and desirable”, under current legislation he cannot compel the Secretary of State to draft such a policy. Justice Girvan goes on to confirm that under the Good Friday Agreement a ‘duty’ is imposed upon the Secretary of State to exercise the power ‘If the evidence leads the Secretary of State to believe that the majority would so vote then she has no choice but to call a border poll’.

He goes on to say, ‘Evidence of election results and opinion polls may form part of the evidential context in which to exercise the judgment’. However, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland’s defence team in the McCord case stated, “She does accept that she does not consider that an election result alone can be a determining indication of political opinion in Northern Ireland in relation to a border poll”.

In this line the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland appears to make the point that even in the event that the political parties in Northern Ireland – whose aim and policy is to achieve a United Ireland – were to win the majority of votes and seats in an election, the Secretary of State may still decide not call a referendum.

The major lesson for Ireland from the Brexit crisis is the unforeseen consequences of holding a referendum without proper planning. A United Ireland requires long term planning and preparation with all sides. The Taoiseach has previously warned that now is not the time to be preparing for a referendum on a United Ireland.

The urgent need for more definitive policy, better preparation and greater clarity on this matter is underlined by the findings of the recent LucidTalk’s Northern-wide poll which were published in the Sunday Times this weekend. The poll revealed that over two thirds of voters in Northern Ireland currently believe Brexit will make a United Ireland more likely within the next ten years.

The clear message to our own Government is that policy neglect seldom goes unpunished.



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