How Martin stole a march on Sinn Féin

Posted By: July 22, 2016

Newton Emerson.Irish News (Belfast).Thursday, July 21,2016

Contrary to reports, Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin have not called for a border poll.

“Far out”, “fanciful” and “not favoured” were among the phrases the taoiseach used while musing on “the possibility” in “10, 20 years’ time” of a vote, which he specified must be held under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Asked by reporters to clarify his remarks, made at a Donegal summer school, Kenny set out his real concern – that Irish unification should not require the entire island to reapply for EU membership. This explains his odd reference to EU leaders needing to prepare for a poll, although legally they would have nothing to do with it. The taoiseach wants to establish from the outset of his proposed all-Ireland Brexit forum that whatever constitutional speculation takes place, there is no prospect of even a temporary ‘Irexit’. He does not want the type of uncertainty hanging over the UK economy to be visited upon his own.

Kenny’s apparent obliviousness to the impact of his remarks in Northern Ireland reveals how little thought he is giving to Irish unity – a paradox matched by Theresa May’s careless references to her unionism.

More thought went into the comments from Martin, made at the same event the day before.

The Fianna Fáil leader expressed his “hope” that Brexit would “move us towards majority support for unification”, in which case “we should trigger a unification referendum”.

However, like Kenny, he put this in the future and in terms of the Good Friday Agreement, concluding: “At this moment the only evidence we have is that the majority of people in Northern Ireland want to maintain open borders and a single market.”

Martin has said he intends to contest elections north of the border from 2019. Pitching his party between Sinn Féin and the SDLP means a nationalism that is assertive but not aggressive. His statement managed that nicely, while seizing ownership of the border poll issue from Sinn Féin, which has fumbled it through over-use.

Nevertheless, there is something irresponsible about playing party political games with a question of this nature, even allowing for Fianna Fáil’s conviction that it and Ireland’s interests coincide.

The best argument for a post-Brexit poll is to remove the uncertainty that this built up in northern society over how much demand there is for Irish unification. This doubt explains the excitable reaction to the comments from Kenny and Martin – a game-changing increase in support for a united Ireland is plausible enough to give nationalists hope of progress. Frustrated hope is destabilising and Brexit amplifies this effect by coming after the demoralisation of a falling nationalist vote and official surveys showing even lower demand for Irish unity.

The trigger for a border poll under the Agreement is for a nationalist victory to appear “likely” to the secretary of state. Likelihood is not defined but has been assumed to mean a census or election result showing a Catholic or nationalist majority, or perhaps plurality. Even before Brexit, these supposedly conjoined indicators were diverging – the Catholic population rising to 45 per cent, the nationalist vote falling to 36 per cent. So which should the secretary of state use?

A border poll would give us a guide to which is the better measure, as well as factoring in any Brexit impact. Unfortunately, for the purpose of removing uncertainty, there is a double catch 22 – a catch 44 – in how a poll must be called.

First, there has to be a credible likelihood of nationalist victory. Holding a vote just to determine the likelihood would breach the Agreement.

Second, after an initial poll, further polls cannot be held less than seven years apart. This was meant to limit constant demands for a referendum but has been taken by nationalists to imply a poll must be held every seven years, creating a countdown to Irish unity, which is why Sinn Féin has been calling for a poll long before there was any chance of winning it.

The upshot is that even if a poll could be held to remove uncertainty and even if it showed no pressing demand for a united Ireland, it would still introduce instability. We cannot clear the air without muddying the waters.

Some of these problems could be allayed by clarifying exactly what would trigger a poll and subsequent polls. The correct place for leaders to reach a view on that is not Brussels or an all-Ireland forum but the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.