A suggestion by a British Direct Rule Minister that a majority vote for Irish reunification in a border poll would not be enough to bring about unity has been strongly rejected across the political spectrum.
The Good Friday Agreement allows for Irish unity to to come about with a simple majority on both sides of the 1922 line of partition through Ireland.
Recent elections have increasingly shown that voters who support Irish unity candidates now outnumber those who vote for unionists. However, the political establishment has been slow to take this on board.
British Minister Steve Baker was speaking in County Kildare at a session of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, a body comprised of elected representatives in Britain and Ireland.
His apparent effort to ‘move the goalposts’ has increased fears that the only peaceful pathway to Irish unity set out by the 1998 peace agreement is being closed down.
Baker said a referendum on a united Ireland should now require the support of a “super-majority” of voters in both the North and the South.
“Would anyone here seriously want a 50 per cent plus one united Ireland result in Northern Ireland?,” he told the meeting.
“Just reflect on the trouble we had from running a 50 per cent plus one referendum in the United Kingdom,” he declared.
He was citing public dissatisfaction with the outcome of the Brexit referendum and calls for it to be rerun – although of the 65 nations which have gained independence from Britain, none ever considered a change of heart.
The idea was quickly shot down by SDLP leader Colum Eastwood who said: “Fundamentally, there will be no super majority requirement for change because unionist votes cannot be worth more than anyone else’s.
“If a simple majority is the requirement to remain in the UK then a simple majority is what will be needed to unite our island. There’ll be no changing the goalposts now.”
Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher branded Mr Baker’s comments “unacceptable”.
“The Good Friday Agreement is clear and unambiguous. 50% plus one is the threshold for a United Ireland to come into being,” he said.
“We all of course want larger margins in favour of the ending of partition, and as a public representative, I will do all that I can to make this a reality. However, the law is the law.
“The GFA is an international agreement signed by two sovereign governments, plus local political parties. It is not up for re-negotiation and the Irish Government must signal with absolute clarity that it will not tolerate any attempt to undermine it.”
A British spokesperson later said the 1998 agreement is clear that any change to the constitutional position of the north of Ireland would require the consent of a majority, and they will remain part of the ‘United Kingdom’ for as long as its people wish for it to be.
”We are absolutely clear that there is no basis to suggest that a majority of people in Northern Ireland wish to separate from the United Kingdom,” the spokesperson declared.
British Direct Ruler Chris Heaton-Harris added that the comments “should not be considered a shift in government policy”. He added that the government is “unwavering in commitment to all strands of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement), not least the principle of consent”.
In an interview this week, Colum Eastwood has suggested a border poll would take place ‘by the end of the decade’. His party said its “new mission” is to “convince the unconvinced” on a united Ireland.
He was being questioned about comments by British opposition leader Keir Starmer, who fuelled speculation that he would refuse to call a border poll after he declared a united Ireland is “not even on the horizon” and “hypothetical”.
Despite public dismay, there was no immediate response from Irish politicians of unity campaigners. Mr Eastwood suggested the statement had been misinterpreted.
“I think it’s about language,” Mr Eastwood said. “I don’t know where the ‘horizon’ is in his [Keir Starmer’s] mind, but Keir has been very clear with me and publicly before that the Good Friday Agreement is the vehicle for deciding the future constitutional set up for the north of Ireland.
“He will abide by that. I don’t imagine Keir Starmer will be campaigning for the union if a referendum was called.
“I think he understands the Good Friday Agreement - more than most British politicians, actually, because of his time working for the PSNI. I think he will abide by the principles of the Good Friday Agreement which basically mean there should be no external impediment, or in other words that it’s for the people of Ireland north and south to decide and the British government will have to abide by that.”
Speaking to Belfast Live on his own view of the likelihood of a referendum on a united Ireland, he said: “Before Brexit it was very hard to get an audience for talking about a united Ireland but I think now it is much closer. I think the sands are shifting on it.
“I mean, as somebody who wants to see it happening, I don’t believe in inevitability - I think we have to make it happen. We have to convince people and that’s why I set up our New Ireland Commission. We have to show people that we’re serious about this, that the process of delivering a new Ireland is a process of reconciliation, that we can show people that actually it’s going to be better for the health service, better for the economy, and better for bringing people together. That, for me, is the task now and that’s the SDLP’s new mission to do that work.”
He continued: “I don’t know exactly when it’ll come but I think the conversation has started. I think the Irish government will become more and more involved in that conversation. And I actually think unionism should, you know, have a conversation as well. We’re speaking to lots of people from a unionist background about our position, but I think unionism should start doing the work to try and convince people of their position in terms of the United Kingdom and then we can meet and have a democratic discussion about it. People don’t have to be afraid of that.
“I think it’s a much shorter time frame than before. I think somewhere towards the end of this decade you could see a referendum.”
The Good Friday Agreement states that the ‘Secretary of State’ should call a referendum “if at any time it appears likely to him” that there’s a majority in favour of a united Ireland.
While nationalists have been calling for a date for a border poll to be set, Mr Eastwood said only that the “criteria” should be made more explicit.
“That’s one of the things we’re speaking to the Labour Party about,” he said. “Peter Kyle [a former British Direct Ruler] announced that the next Labour government would look at firming up that criteria, so we’re talking to them about that. A key part of that will have to be that it isn’t just called by a British Secretary of State, that it’s done in conjunction with the Irish government because they have to have a referendum as well. They are conversations that are ongoing. Labour are committed to doing something about the criteria. I think that’s a good thing.”