Steve Baker, a British minister of state for Northern Ireland and a former chairman of the Tory euro-sceptic European Research Group, suggested that it might have been better if the Good Friday Agreement had provided that there would be no change in the status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom unless a “super majority” of 60% of voters in Northern Ireland voted for a united Ireland in a referendum.
He conveniently forgets the blindingly obvious truth that there would have been no Good Friday Agreement at all if anyone had suggested that such a super majority would be required for Irish unity. The idea that a minority of 42% of voters could in perpetuity keep 58% of Northern Ireland voters within the United Kingdom against their wishes is frankly grotesque.
The strange thing is that such a viewpoint is being articulated by a British office-holder at this juncture. Does he really think that there would have been a majority in the Republic’s referendum for such a minority veto on Irish unity?
Of course, he might defend his argument by citing the views of the late Seamus Mallon who expressed scepticism about the value of Irish unity arising from a pro-unity vote of “50% plus one”.
But wishing in retrospect that the Good Friday Agreement would have put Irish unity almost permanently beyond the reach of any future majority in Northern Ireland is political nonsense.
Buyer’s remorse over the result of the UK’s Brexit referendum which would probably have failed in the context of a 60% threshold may afflict him now that the UK is clearly seen to have been seriously damaged and weakened by the choice which Baker and his ERG colleagues grossly mis-sold to the British people. Baker was as virulent an opponent of the EU as one can imagine, calling it an obstacle to world peace which needed to be “torn down”.
Baker also famously expressed public remorse over the way in which Boris Johnson and Lord Frost conducted their negotiations on Northern Ireland with the EU.
Equally strange is the failure of Baker and his senior minister, Chris Heaton Harris, to understand that it was perfectly reasonable for any Irish Taoiseach, especially a reasonably young one, to express the opinion that Irish unity would come about in his lifetime.
The Good Friday Agreement only provides for holding a border poll if the Secretary of State becomes of the opinion that there is a majority of voters in Northern Ireland which would vote for Irish unity.
That precondition simply has not been reached. and, despite Sinn Féin bluster, is very unlikely to be reached in the next decade. But if there is clear and consistent evidence in coming years that more than 50% of Northern Ireland’s voters would vote in favour of Irish unity, the Good Friday Agreement obliges the UK as a matter of international treaty law to hold a referendum.
Many forget that a majority vote for Irish unity is highly unlikely unless the proposed model for Irish unity has been worked out in detail and is understood by voters. north and south.
Brexit which Baker and his colleagues foisted on a befuddled electorate never involved any detailed voter consideration of its likely consequences. And we now see the folly of such a referendum for the UK. Opinion polls in the UK now show a popular recognition that Brexit was a mistake.
Shifting northern opinion from its current minimum level of 60/40 opposition to a united Ireland would require a lengthy debate on the nature of an acceptable united Ireland to occur on both sides of the Irish border. Sinn Féin beat the border poll drum loudly but they never put forward a model of Irish unity with any chance of popular acceptance.
The only model they publicly espouse is a unitary 32 county socialist state. That looks like a lead balloon in terms of realpolitik.
Once we grasp the reality that there will not be a majority north or south of the border for an undefined Irish unity in principle but that any Irish unity model will have to attract a very considerable number of northern voters who want to “kick the tyres” of any proposal, the likelihood of a 51/49 referendum on unity recedes.
Moderate centre-ground northern voters will shy away from a form of Irish unity which threatens to ignite sectarian violence because it offers nothing at all to unionists and loyalists except absorption by latter-day “anschluss” into a unitary state that is a cold place for their identity and traditions.
That is why some confederal model of Irish unity is by far the most likely unity to eventuate. But we are nowhere near that outcome, firstly because we haven’t even debated it, and secondly because majority support for it will not happen for at least a decade.