If Northern Ireland voted to leave the UK, does the Republic have to take them?

Would there be a poll in the south or would it just happen?


Under the Good Friday Agreement, if there’s credible information that the majority of Northern Irish voters would vote to leave the UK, then the Northern Ireland Secretary of State is empowered to call a formal vote on the issue.

The rest of the United Kingdom has no input. That is, Westminster cannot, in theory, stop or postpone Northern Ireland’s vote on the matter, nor can Westminster ignore or cancel the outcome, regardless of whether it’s stay or leave. Officially. However, the Tories, who are in power now, are the Conservative and Unionist Party. Extrapolating from their response to the SNP’s calls for another independence referendum for Scotland, they and their Northern Ireland Secretary may choose to be ‘blind’ to any and all credible information that the Northern Irish people want to leave the UK. A Labour Party government, or a coalition government without the Tories, is more likely to permit a border poll, but the chances of Labour forming a government at present, either alone or in coalition, seem remote.

Similarly, under GFA, the Republic of Ireland can call a vote to decide whether or not to unite the two jurisdictions. As part of GFA, the Republic gave up its constitutional claim of jurisdiction over the island of Ireland, and officially see unification as a long term aim, subject to the wishes of the people of the island of Ireland. Again, depending on economic conditions, the Irish government might try to postpone a border poll, but, unlike the UK, none of the parties have a vested interest in preventing one taking place.

If NI voted to stay in the UK, they stay, the result of a border poll in the Republic notwithstanding. If NI voted to leave, but the Republic voted against unification… I don’t know. I don’t know if the Republic would vote against unification. However, there would be a transitional period during which Northern Ireland’s exit was thrashed out: perhaps, if the Republic did vote against unity, that period could be extended so that further talks and negotiations could take place. Northern Ireland would not be in a comfortable place during that process, though. No change there…

How many people in the Republic of Ireland want to join the United Kingdom?

Realistically, none.

Rhetorically, it gets bandied about occasionally. Some decades ago, during a period of economic implosion, the top chat show host in Ireland, Gay Byrne, used his weekly monologue to say that if Ireland and its people had any manners, they would hand the country back to the Queen of England, and apologise for its condition. In no way was Byrne serious – it was a device to express the disgust of the country with our leadership which had put us in such a disastrous economic position.

It’s that sense in which rejoining the UK is mentioned – an expression of the utterly unthinkable, the last resort of the already damned.

Rejoining the Commonwealth is a separate issue. The Commonwealth centres around the monarch, not the United Kingdom as a political entity, and many Irish people are quite fond of the Royals, as, for example, many Americans are, so the Commonwealth is perhaps more palatable to the Irish than the UK. We left at a pretty low point in British-Irish relations, but we might rejoin as relations improve. On the other hand, why fix something that isn’t broken? There isn’t the will now to make the change. Perhaps, if Ireland were re-united, rejoining the Commonwealth might be used as a sop to tender unionist feelings.

Brexit makes either option virtually impossible, however. Ireland likes being in the EU, despite some whinges here and there. Rejoining the UK or the Commonwealth doesn’t really improve on Ireland’s EU membership, and could damage it.

What will happen in Northern Ireland now that UK has voted to leave EU? Will they secede from UK and form their own country? or join the Republic of Ireland? or neither?

Simple: Northern Ireland is comprehensively buggered. Slightly longer: NI will leave the EU, will not become an independent country, might get special EU-adjunct status because of the border with the Republic, and will in the fullness of time be re-united with the Republic (but not necessarily soon).

Northern Ireland is heavily dependent on EU funding, and receives extra funding for projects related to the peace process and cross-border cooperation. The UK has done little to invest in the province over the years, and I see no prospect of Westminster replacing Northern Ireland’s funding out of their EU membership “savings”. Actually, I doubt any part of those “savings” will ever be seen again, but that’s another story.

The majority here voted to Remain. Unfortunately, the Unionist parties – foolishly and shortsightedly – campaigned to Leave, and they have the majority vote at present. Only just, but a majority nonetheless. This means that the majority that voted to Remain has no representation on Brexit.

The recent assembly elections here may indicate a sea-change in NI politics. We now have voters who were born after the Troubles, after the ceasefires and their breakdowns, after even the Good Friday Agreement. The endless green and orange wrangling means very little to them, and many of the rest of us are sick of it. We’re not quite at the point of abandoning our entrenched positions just yet, but we’re less enchanted with all the mud. The DUP could well lose their majority in the next round of elections. If that happens, the NI Secretary of State may well call a border poll. This probably won’t happen until after Brexit, though, so NI will be leaving the EU no matter what. The outcome of a border poll will therefore depend on the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland, which I imagine will not be good. It may be bad enough that the unionist voters would prefer being a roughly 20% minority in the Republic to being a less than 2% minority in a UK that can’t wait to be shot of them.

The border situation might result in Northern Ireland getting special status within the EU. What that looks like is the most mysterious aspect of Brexit. I suspect it will look like a transitional arrangement until a border poll endorses Irish unification, though.