Labour’s manifesto needs to support a referendum on Irish unity

by Kevin Meagher

As the midwife to the Good Friday Agreement back in 1998, Labour is, quite rightly, immensely proud of book-ending 30 years of the troubles with a political deal, that while not perfect, has delivered the prospect of peace, reconciliation and progress in Northern Ireland.

Ever since its signing, Labour conference speeches have been replete with references to it. As soon as Tony Blair mentioned her in his leader’s speech at the 1998 conference, the hall rose to applaud Mo Mowlam, the Northern Ireland Secretary who did so much to bring about the agreement.

As recently as the 2017 manifesto, there was a customary reference:

‘The Good Friday Agreement, which Labour helped to negotiate, is one of the greatest achievements of Labour in office…and we remain committed to working with all sides to deliver real peace and greater prosperity to Northern Ireland.’

As party grandees gather this weekend to thrash out the contents of Labour’s next manifesto during its Clause Five meeting, they need to include some specific provisions in relation to Northern Ireland, recognising the tectonic plates are shifting and Labour can’t rely on past glories.

Let’s start with the obvious. As well as a deal securing a devolved power-sharing assembly and all-Ireland institutions, the Good Friday Agreement is also something else. It is – and was always meant to be – a blueprint for bringing about Irish unity through exclusively peaceful and democratic means.

It contains the provision for a ‘border poll’  – or referendum on Irish reunification – ‘if at any time it appears likely to [the Secretary of State] 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.’

It’s an elusively-worded phrase, but its meaning is crystal clear: There will be a vote on Irish unity when there is sufficient prospect of a majority of voters in Northern Ireland – and through a parallel referendum in the Irish Republic – voting for it.

We were always going to get to the stage when this fundamental provision would need to be honoured – that was the point of the GFA – and it’s highly plausible this moment will come during the next parliament.

Incremental demographic change, that has taken place over many years, now means Catholics are set to outnumber Protestants by the 2021 Census. An important change – in Northern Ireland’s centenary year – but it’s the recent electoral and polling evidence that’s more important.

Unionist parties now only win a minority of the popular vote, while Sinn Fein was just 1,100 votes off topping the poll in the last elections to the devolved assembly in 2017.

Naturally enough, Brexit has turbo-charged the debate, with a Lord Ashcroft poll last month showing 51/49 support for Irish unity.

Change is coming and, make no mistake, this is all going to land in the next prime minister’s in-tray.

If we don’t prepare for a referendum and the prospect of Irish unity – in the face of mounting evidence that it’s en route – then we may as well post-date a political crisis that will make today’s difficulties in restarting power-sharing look a doddle in comparison.

Irish nationalists and republicans have an entirely reasonable expectation that their long-term political ambitions will be honoured. This is, after all, what the Good Friday Agreement promises – and what they signed up to in 1998.

It will fall to the next government to make good on this promise. The question is, how is the agreement’s provision for a border poll to be decoded? What justifies holding one?

The former Northern Ireland Office official, Alan Whysall, writing a paper earlier this year on the prospects of a border poll for The Constitution Unit at University College London, made the point that although the exact trigger for a border poll remains opaque, there are several criteria that offer a reasonable justification for calling one.

He cites a ‘clear majority in a succession of reliable opinion polls;’ a ‘Catholic majority in a census;’ a ‘majority of members in the Northern Ireland Assembly, or the general election, from nationalist parties;’ and ‘a vote by a majority in the Assembly in favour of a poll.’ As he points out ‘none of them [are] straightforward.’ However, most of them are already in prospect.

So, Labour’s manifesto needs to include two things.

First, a commitment to redoubling efforts to restore cross-community devolution, which has stalled since the collapse of power-sharing, following the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal (which awaits the imminent report from a judge-led inquiry).

Second, Labour needs to state clearly that it will facilitate a referendum if there is evidence this represents majority opinion in Northern Ireland. All the Labour manifesto needs to do is: ‘Promise to uphold all the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, including holding a border poll on Northern Ireland’s constitutional position, if the conditions contained in the agreement are met.’

What we cannot have, however, is more inert, watery phrases offering platitudes about the GFA being ‘one of the greatest achievements of Labour in office.’

Not when Labour ministers will be called upon to make big decisions about Northern Ireland in the next few years.

It’s time for Labour’s manifesto to reflect that reality.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut and author of ‘A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about’

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8 Responses to “Labour’s manifesto needs to support a referendum on Irish unity”

  1. JoHn P Reid says:

    Yes Protestants will be our numbered but does that mean cTholivs feel their religion is tgat important, they must vote, or not vite UUP or the alliance, by the way there’s a good. Axe for labour to our up candidates

    Yes a United ireland will come when no one cares for the U.K., or even a Northern Ireland that’s not part of either the South or the U.K.
    But that’s also when people if no religious persuasion decide they financially want to be worse off
    There’s a good chance the south will leave the EU too,
    Not sure about Kate hoey voting for the DUP
    But at least when Stormont is restored student protest politics by the likes of Stella Creasy can stop telling the North what views to have

    I know Catholic’s who vote for the SDLP wanted a United ireland settled for the Belfast agreement( it’s real name why name of after a religious thing, it just gave the idea to vote against it was to vote against god) those SDLP voters who take the labour whip were told stormont will decide their view
    Some of them as catholic’s have a religious view against abortion
    Stella Creasy overriding stormont to spite the DUP also offended catholics in the SDLP

  2. Tafia says:

    You do realise that this also involves another sovereign nation – the Republic of Ireland.

    They will have to have a referendum to as to whether they actually want Northern Ireland bearing in mind the size of the unionist vote, how belligerent they are and the fractious nature of Irish politics. The unionists would actually hold the balance of power in an all-Ireland Republic.

    And what would you do if the North voted to leave the UK ( they cant vote to join the Republic, thats up to the Republic), but the Republic voted not to let them in? The North is an economic basket case and the Republic might not fancy the idea.

    And in the cold light of day, would the North vote itself out of an NHS into a mutual private system, a far less supportive welfare state, a political system where striking is illegal unless a Court authorises it and an education system that is more basic and where families are expected to contribute far more financially?

  3. Anne says:

    I understand your passion for a United Ireland Kevin – sadly the situation in NI is not understood by the majority of the English. It is an interesting statistic that Catholic’s will shortly out number Protestants – this will probably alter voting preference. Although, I feel, that Brexit has added another dimension to the situation, especially around trade and the boarder. There will, I feel, be some tactical voting in NI in the upcoming elections to try and stop the DUP being the largest party. However, you are correct Kevin, the NI situation will be a big subject for the next government – my hope is that it will be a Labour government. Certainly, the last government had a very poor understanding of the situation.

  4. Ian says:

    As someone who was born in NI in the unionist community, I have long held that unionist Protestants could have always got a better deal from a southern prime minister to agree to unification than they would get from a British Government, particularly a Labour one.
    The demographics have been clear for decades and a southern prime minister could have been generous as he would have been a hero in Ireland.

  5. Paul Kelly says:

    I read this article when it first went online, but decided it was important to calm down before replying.

    1. As a Roman Catholic (why that should matter is beyond me, but it seems to) and living in Northern Ireland, I am often guilty of forgetting how grateful I should be to the Labour Party. Without its benevolence and wisdom, where would we be?

    2. The ‘peace process’ in Northern Ireland belongs to the people. It began on the very first day of ‘the Troubles’ when the vast majority rejected violence and the extremists. That includes the current Labour leadership.

    3. No one national political party can claim a special place in the process. The United Kingdom government did nothing less than its duty and it could be argued that if the national political parties and the government had taken a greater interest since 1921, we wouldn’t have got into the mess in the first place.

    4. If Kevin really wants to claim the process for Labour, then it must also take significant blame for the current situation. Mr. Blair, a Labour PM, helped entrench the extremists in Stormont. He helped divide the country along sectarian lines far worse than anything we have seen in the last 30 or so years.

    I don’t see anyone at the Labour conference rushing to take credit for that.

    5. Tafia you make a very important and often neglected point. The RoI also has to vote for unity and I do not believe it is being honest. In the 70s when the RoI was a basket case there is little doubt they would have voted for unity. Money would have rolled in. (Up until the Troubles, I believe NI was a net contributor to the Treasury. The current situation cannot be blamed entirely on the Troubles)

    But by the 1990’s I am not so sure. I have no doubt Leo Varadkar would love to go down in history as being the man who united Ireland, just as Helmut Kohl did with Germany. But the island of Ireland is not Germany and the reunification of Germany has been far from smooth.

    The RoI needs to have an honest debate with itself over this subject. Morally. I don’t think they should have a choice, but practically I think they will walk away when faced with the option. That will then beg the question, why did all of those people die?

    6. Finally. I suspect Kevin is not in a hurry to involve anyone from Northern Ireland in this discussion unless they agree with him. Certainly Labour members in Northern Ireland will go unheard.

    With the current leadership it is unlikely that situation will change and if anything, will get worse should Labour win.

    What will Labour do then? Apologists for the terrorists who caused so much suffering sitting in No. 10 and No. 11

  6. John P Reid says:

    Paul Kelly, thanks for that never thought of half that stuff

  7. Anne says:

    i am not sure that religion has as much an influence on the political situation in NI today as it did in 1921 but I think it is still a factor in voting behaviour. I do remember Tony Blair overseeing the Good Friday Agreement in NI.
    If a United Ireland were ever to come to fruition it would have to include the republic in any discussions or even a referendum and yes it is very possible that those in the republic may be opposed to it. In the end it is for the people of Ireland to decide it’s own future.

  8. As always Kevin seems to be the only Uncut contributor who isn’t looking to burn Corbyn at the stake. Whether you agree with him or not, he does seem to bring up big questions even when he doesn’t always have the answer.

    What has to be said though is that Uncut is moribund. Here we are in the middle of an election and there have been no posts for ten days. Time to put Uncut out of its misery I suspect.

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