As the Break Up of Britain? conference kicks off this weekend, Daniel Finn argues Starmer was wrong to say an Irish unification vote was ‘not even on horizon’, even though he might be UK PM who has to grapple with it.

DOES the long-term fall-out from the Brexit crisis mean a united Ireland is now within reach?

After last year’s Northern Ireland Assembly election, Sinn Fein is now the largest party on both sides of the Irish border, a scenario that seemed utterly far-fetched little more than a decade ago.

Unionism has been embroiled in crisis, with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) going through two leadership changes in the space of a few weeks in 2021 – as many as the party had experienced in the previous half-century. There seems to be a dramatic contrast between nationalist self-confidence and Unionist disarray in the post-Brexit landscape.

Yet it is currently still easier to imagine a Sinn Fein first minister in Belfast greeting a Sinn Fein Taoiseach in Dublin than it is to picture their respective jurisdictions becoming one. The fact that a Unionist party was eclipsed in the May 2022 election does not mean that Irish nationalism is now hegemonic.

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Sinn Fein became Northern Ireland’s largest party with 29% of the vote. It was the fragmentation of the Unionist bloc between different parties that enabled it to overtake the DUP by a decisive margin.

The combined vote share for parties that want to end the union with Britain has only increased by 1% since 1998, yet the total Unionist electorate has declined by a full 10%. In place of a long-established divide between a Unionist majority and a nationalist minority, we now have two large minorities, both with approximately 40% of the vote, and a non-aligned bloc accounting for the rest.


The main political force representing the non-aligned electorate is the liberal Alliance Party, which defines itself as neither nationalist nor Unionist, and came third last year with 13.5%. Observers of the political scene in Northern Ireland refer to this cohort as “constitutional agnostics”.

Under the framework established by the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), the only way to end the partition of Ireland is by winning a referendum on Irish unity. The GFA only requires a simple majority. A recent call by Conservative MP Steve Baker – UK Minister of State for Northern Ireland – for a 60% “super-majority” threshold has no basis in law and will be strongly resisted by Irish nationalists as an exercise in moving the goalposts.

In any case, the shift in popular opinion needed for Irish unification has yet to emerge. In Scotland, there have been several dozen opinion polls since the 2019 UK General Election that showed majority support for independence. During the same period in Northern Ireland, there hasn’t been a single poll with a majority for ending partition.

There have also been much fewer opinion surveys conducted on the main constitutional question in Northern Ireland than in Scotland, so we have a smaller base of polling data with which to work. The polls we do have suggest a wide variation in the size of the pro-Union majority, from a low point of 2% to a high point of 23%.

That obviously doesn’t mean that public opinion has been swinging up and down like a yo-yo on the question of Irish unity. Different polling methodologies are at work and we can’t be sure at this point who is closer to the mark, although the surveys that give the pro-Union side a lead of somewhere between 5-15% seem to be more reliable than the outliers in either direction.

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Another obvious difference between Scotland and Northern Ireland is the close relationship in the latter between ethno-national identity and constitutional preferences. It is much easier for a traditional Scottish Labour voter to come out in favour of independence than it is for a long-standing Unionist to embrace the prospect of Irish unity.

For that reason, we should not expect to see a major swing towards the pro-unity camp if a date was actually set for a referendum that parallels the shift towards the pro-independence camp in Scotland after Alex Salmond reached an agreement with David Cameron to hold a plebiscite in 2014.

This does not mean we can fully predict the outcome before campaigning begins in earnest. The “constitutional agnostics” are more likely to be persuadable than those who still vote for Unionist parties, and the turnout for a referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status is bound to be significantly higher than the 64% who took part in the last Assembly election, so there are bound to be votes in play for either side.

HOWEVER, the pro-unity campaigners will want to be at least within touching distance of victory upon launching what they hope will be the final push.

In a further contrast with Scotland, there is an established framework in place to determine if and when a referendum on Irish unity should be called. The Scottish referendum was the result of a bilateral agreement between Salmond and Cameron, as the devolution package of the late 1990s did not include any procedure for holding a vote on independence.

Since 2019, Conservative prime ministers in London have dismissed calls from the Scottish Government for a second referendum and the courts have affirmed their right to do so.

Under the GFA, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland is obliged to call a referendum “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”.

In principle the secretary of state can also call a referendum if a vote in favour of Irish unity does not appear at all likely to him (or her) but there is little reason to think that will happen. The text of the agreement goes on to say that such referendums should only be held at intervals of at least seven years.

There is a certain ambiguity here, of course, since the GFA does not say how the secretary of state should determine whether a pro-unity vote “appears likely.” Strictly speaking, the only way to be sure is to hold a referendum, which takes us right back to the starting point.

But let’s recall the situation in Scotland as of summer 2021. There had been multiple opinion polls with the pro-independence side in the lead over the previous 18 months, and Scottish voters had just returned a pro-independence majority at Holyrood for the third consecutive time.

If similar conditions existed in Northern Ireland, it would clearly make a mockery of the GFA for any British government to refuse a unity plebiscite.

This brings into focus a key element of the Northern Irish peace process, the Downing Street Declaration that the British and Irish governments jointly produced in 1993 and which established the broad parameters of the GFA.

A crucial passage in the declaration affirmed that Britain has “no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland” and defined the “primary interest” of the British state in Ireland as follows: “Peace, stability and reconciliation established by agreement among all the people who inhabit the island.”

According to Fergus Finlay, who worked as an adviser to the Irish foreign minister Dick Spring, the Irish delegation sought fruitlessly to persuade their British counterparts that they should include a comma between the words “selfish” and “strategic,” so the declaration leaves open the possibility that Britain has an “unselfish strategic or economic interest” in continuing to rule Northern Ireland.

Anyone familiar with the history of Britain’s empire will know how often British state managers have defined their interventions as purely altruistic. But there seems to be no compelling strategic or economic motivation for maintaining British rule if there was a settled majority against it within Northern Ireland.

That doesn’t exclude the possibility of a political interest in seeking to obstruct a referendum on unity. For example, British politicians might fear setting a precedent for Scotland and encouraging the idea that the long-predicted break-up of Britain has finally begun.

Speaking in March 2021, Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg casually junked the Downing Street Declaration as if it were of no real consequence, saying: “Somebody once said that the UK had no selfish interest in Northern Ireland. I’d dispute that, I think we have an interest in keeping our whole country together as a United Kingdom.”

Later that year, the Labour leader Keir Starmer promised to “make the case for a United Kingdom strongly” in the event of an Irish referendum.

Strictly speaking, Starmer’s pledge did not violate the GFA. But there is a clear conflict of interest if the same politicians who have to decide whether or not to call a referendum are committed to support one side of the argument.

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When Starmer insists, as he did at this year’s Labour conference, that the question of a plebiscite is “absolutely hypothetical” and “not even on the horizon,” he speaks as an avowedly partisan figure, not a cool-headed analyst doing his best to supply a realistic assessment of the political terrain.

The point at which British government ministers will have to make a call is still some years off at least. For Sinn Fein, the most active proponents of a united Ireland, the next big test will come in the South, with a general election due to be held by spring 2025.

Sinn Fein have been consistently polling well ahead of their centre-right rivals and are aiming to form a government, although there is no guarantee that it will be able to put together a sufficiently broad coalition in the aftermath of an election.

Whatever Starmer may care to argue, a referendum on Irish unity is now anything but hypothetical, as the growing demand for books on the subject by journalists and academics suggests.

It may well prove to be a challenge with which Starmer has to grapple if he becomes Britain’s prime minister. But the advocates of unification still have to clear a formidable obstacle course before they can say goodbye to the British state.

Daniel Finn is features editor of the New York-based US political magazine Jacobin and is the author of One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA.