The logistics of referendums

The logistics of referendums

THE Northern Ireland minister, Steve Baker, recently floated the idea that the referendum that will eventually be held on Irish unity should require a “super-majority” to be carried.

So rather than a simple majority - 50 per cent of the vote plus one - there should be a majority of, say, 60 per cent before any change can be made.

Baker, Number Two at the Northern Ireland Office, was speaking at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly – a twice-yearly gathering of the political great and good in Co Kildare last month.

“Would anyone here seriously want a 50 per cent plus one united Ireland result in Northern Ireland? I speak personally,” he asked delegates.

“I deliberately say it like that because some of you I know would. But just reflect on the trouble we had from running a 50 per cent plus one referendum in the United Kingdom,” he added.

He was of course referring to Brexit – carried by a slender 52 per cent versus 48 per cent margin.

Ironic, given Baker was one of his party’s most vociferous proponents of Britain leaving the UK.

On the face of it, he makes is an alluring argument.

Certainly it is preferable in any referendum that the result is conclusive — that is obvious when you bear in mind the problems that have been generated with the narrowness of the Brexit result, with endless challenges to its veracity.

Indeed, the DUP’s Ian Paisley (Jnr) tried to introduce a bill in parliament earlier in the year calling for a supermajority clause to be added before there could be any change to Northern Ireland’s status.

It never got anywhere for the same reason Baker’s comments are ultimately hot air.

The Good Friday Agreement governs these things. The Good Friday Agreement cannot be reinterpreted by contemporary politicians on a whim. There is no rewriting or rejigging permitted. The deal is clear.

If a simple majority of voters opts to leave the UK at some stage in the next few years, then that result must stand.

To do otherwise, by insisting that a certain threshold should be met, gives some votes greater value.

A unionist veto, you might say.

I’m afraid those days are long gone.

No, the agreement - 25 years old - is primary legislation in both the UK and Irish Republic and not some political fix that can be retrofitted to suit one side or the other.

What I find interesting, though, is that Baker was even talking about it.

He’s been attacked by a range of nationalist politicians and commentators for speaking his mind.

But rather than berate him, its surely an implicit acknowledgment that the issue of Irish unity has now moved centre-stage in British political thinking.

Baker didn’t speak lightly.

Make no mistake, quietly, behind the scenes, the politicians in Westminster and the officials in Whitehall, are getting their collective heads around the prospect of a united Ireland at some stage in the next few years.


Unionists need to make a case for their viewpoint

As is often the case on Twitter, (or ‘X’ as I think we’re supposed to call it nowadays) you find yourself having regular rows with people.

Well, I do at least.

(That may be something to do with living in South Yorkshire and bluntness now coming as second nature).

Anyhow, I recently had a barney with the leader of the Ulster Unionists, Doug Beattie.

I was annoyed by a remark he made claiming the “endless conversation” about constitutional change “is nothing more than a distraction from dealing with the daily issues that affect the people of Northern Ireland.”

His view, expressed to the Belfast Telegraph was that everyone should be “looking to maximise the opportunities available to them through a sustainable UK and a successful devolved government”.

Needless to say I demurred.

Northern Ireland’s present difficulties are solely caused by the DUP’s intransigence – not United Irelanders.

The simple fact is that Irish nationalists and republicans – and a growing number of people who consider themselves to be neither – are looking past it’s narrow confines.

With higher living standards, superior benefits and better public services in the south, they can sense the benefits of a single Ireland.

For them, Northern Ireland just doesn’t work. Perhaps it never has and never will.

Instead, many now consider ‘constitutional change’ (aka Irish unity) the practical solution to the problems of everyday life.

Rather, it is up to unionists to carry the weight of showing that Northern Ireland can work.

‘Proof of concept’ they call it in engineering projects.

In credit to Doug, he does now seem to be toughening-up his line on the DUP and their Stormont boycott.

“I am tired of the speculation about the DUP restoring the institutions,” he said recently, in response to growing speculation that Stormont might be back up and running by Christmas.

He also pointed out that the Secretary of State, Chris Heaton-Harris, as well as Labour’s Hilary Benn, have made it crystal clear that the Windsor Framework is staying.

“The DUP’s boycott of Stormont hasn’t made one iota of difference to the framework,” he chided.

In contrast, a spokesman for Jim Allister’s hardline Traditional Unionist Voice party said it “expects” the DUP to hold its nerve.

Rishi Sunak”s deal with the EU must be “rejected and replaced” with measures which “fully respect” Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

“If that situation changes, they [the DUP] will answer to the electorate,” the TUV spokesman added ominously.

There is plainly little love lost among the unionist clan.

Doug Beattie’s troops are starting to realise that voters are sick and tired of the political paralysis and are growing more confident in attacking the DUP from a more moderate position.

The TUV, uncompromising as ever, are gunning for them from the hardline fringe.

A battle royal is shaping up as the DUP inches back towards the political centre and a deal to restore Stormont is thrashed out.

Accusations of betrayal and selling-out will rev-up in the next few weeks, as the unionists tear lumps out of each other.

Could the advocates of the Union be doing a worse job?