In the wake of the Assembly elections, both Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and First Minister in waiting Michelle O’Neill have stressed the need for clarity on the issue. Pat Leahy, political editor of The Irish Times, has recently echoed their sentiments.
I agree that the criteria for calling a border poll should be clarified, but there is little chance that the Secretary of State will comply. Successive Secretaries of State, including incumbent Brandon Lewis, have repeatedly resisted public demands for clarification. In court, the Northern Ireland Office has forcefully insisted that the power of the Secretary of State to order a poll must remain undefined and unfettered. The Belfast High Court and Court of Appeal have upheld, even expanded, the Secretary of State’s shadowy authority over a border poll. Together, the NIO and the courts have gutted the Good Friday Agreement’s notion that the emergence of a likely majority for Irish unity will trigger the calling of a poll.
The whole point of the Secretary of State not specifying the criteria for ordering a border poll is to maximize his control over any such poll. Why would Brandon Lewis willingly limit his currently unconstrained and jealously guarded authority over a border poll?
The Secretary of State will call a reunification vote if and when the British government judges that it is expedient. As in all things so in a border poll: the British government will be the sole arbiter of its own self-interest.
⏮ Mike Burke has lectured in Politics and Public Administration in Canada for over 30 years.