Moving the goalposts
Moving the goalposts


By Suzanne Breen (for the Belfast Telegraph)

Since its creation over a century ago, we have been told that Northern Ireland is part of the UK because that is the wish of a majority of its population.

As the prospect of a border poll increases, seven in 10 unionists want the rules changed.

Some 62% say that a 60% plus one vote should be needed in a referendum on Irish unity, while 8% would settle for 55% plus one.

A fortnight ago, Northern Ireland Office minister Steve Baker suggested a supermajority should be required.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Tánaiste Micheál Martin and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood all firmly rejected his suggestion, and a majority in Northern Ireland agree with them.

Nine in 10 nationalists and six in 10 Alliance/Green voters say a simple majority — as was the case for Brexit and Scottish independence — is sufficient.

The strength of feeling on this among nationalists here is entirely understandable.

Moving the goalposts on constitutional change now would be the most undemocratic action imaginable.

If you have always accepted that a majority is adequate to maintain the Union, you can’t suddenly say that it’s not enough to end it.

When quizzed about his colleague’s comments, Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris stressed that Baker was speaking personally and there had been no change in UK Government policy. He’s a wise man on this one.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a border poll being decided on the basis of a simple majority. I don’t recall any objections to that at the time.

The very idea of tampering with the rules now is outrageous. It would be tantamount to updating gerrymandering — all votes are equal, but some are more equal than others.

And here’s a question for those demanding a 60% plus one vote for Irish unity: is the same now required for maintaining the Union?

If so, the status quo could be in danger given that 43% of voters supported pro-Irish unity candidates, while 39% backed pro-Union representatives in last year’s Assembly election.

The only reason that changing the rules has even entered our political conversation is because of changing demographics and electoral patterns in Northern Ireland.

Yet it is a foolish and pointless exercise to even attempt to move the goalposts now.

Unionists understandably feel under pressure. The stakes are high. Nationalists will only have to win a border poll once.

Yet individuals and groups against Irish unity shouldn’t waste their time and energy on trying to change the rules.

The challenge for those who believe in the Union is to put together powerful arguments to preserve it and to make this state so good a place to work and live that its citizens don’t want to abolish it.

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