Yesterday, Sam Coates set out in an ‘In Depth’ piece for the Times how new polling on Northern Ireland appeared to have spooked Theresa May.
There were two polls. The first, a regularly held ‘tracker’ poll, had voters split between remaining in the UK and joining the Republic by 55 points to 34. The pollster noted that the margin was smaller than in previous polls, and there were a higher number of undecided voters.
Another poll asked whether Northern Ireland should “remain in the EU by joining the Republic”, or “Leave the EU by staying in the UK” – in the context of a ‘hard Brexit’ and with “no deal on the border, the Good Friday agreement or citizen’s rights”. It found 48 per cent of respondents favoured the former option and only 45 the latter.
Sinn Fein have jumped on this poll to demand that a border poll is held at once – and it is not surprising to learn that it was commissioned by their European Parliament group. But how serious is the risk to the Union really?
First, as Anthony Wells of YouGov explains in the article, we should take the former poll much more seriously than the second. Sinn Fein’s question not only depends on a series of hypothetical circumstances, but invites respondents to consider their future vote with certain issues – basically Brexit – at the forefront of their minds.
As we have learned from Scotland, ordinary voters do not place nearly so great a weight on the European question as devolved politicians expect them to. Outside hypothetical polls we actually see a different process occurring in Ulster: the EU’s determined pushing of the Dublin/nationalist position has actually pushed liberal unionists, including Ulster Unionists who campaigned for Remain, into alignment with the Democratic Unionists.
That’s important because any near-to-medium term referendum victory for Northern Ireland’s annexation by the Republic would need a crucial bloc of unionists voters to foreswear their British loyalities for the sake of their European ones. But this constituency doesn’t seem to amount to more than a handful of Alliance Party politicians and supporters.
Of course, some pro-Remain politicians have a history of trying to exaggerate and then weaponise the supposed weakness of the United Kingdom. I called it the ‘myth of the fragile union‘, and looked back in December at how the year and a half since the Brexit vote had comprehensively busted it. Now it appears that somebody is at it again, using one dodgy poll commissioned by Sinn Fein to suggest an existential threat to the Union.
None of this is to say that the Government has handled Northern Ireland well. Neither James Brokenshire nor Karen Bradley have proved the sort of energetic ‘happy warrior’ that might be able to properly get to grips with the Irish Government’s tireless spinning on this crucial issue.
As a result, Leo Varadkar has been able to get away with dressing up all his demands as a defence of the Belfast (‘Good Friday’) Agreement. There is no requirement in that document for an invisible border with the Republic, and in fact prioritising links to Ireland over links to Britain without a referendum is a much more serious attack on its fundamental principles. But you wouldn’t know that if you were casually following the debate in the media.
Likewise, the idea that the Northern Irish economy depends on its links to the Republic – it’s complete bunk, but even now you need to do a bit of digging to find that out.
So the Government could definitely be doing much better when it came to Northern Ireland. But two years of rudderless ‘leadership’ from the Northern Irish Office doesn’t mean that the province is about to leave. Were a referendum actually held it would concentrate voters’ attention on the core issues, both economic and cultural, that have always been the key drivers of their vote.
Unionists show no sign, at least in any significant numbers, of being more attached to the EU than the UK. Those that are attracted to the EU would have to reckon with the fact that sticking with it is badly against the economic interests of Northern Ireland, and without the economic case what case could they make, short of simply becoming Irish nationalists?
When she first took office, May understood that one of the most important and most neglected duties that unionists have is to act as if they believe in the legitimacy of the Union. That’s why she went to Scotland and gave a speech defending Westminster and its role in national life. If you act as if the UK is illegitimate, voters will take your lead. If you suggest constantly that it is weak, it will weaken.
The Prime Minister should recall that spirit now, and keep in mind too that the politicians who are pushing these measures to ‘save the Union’ in Parliament are very often working hand-in-glove with the SNP and Plaid, who believe that a soft Brexit is the only way to keep the break-up of the UK a viable prospect.
The Union has proven stronger than either side of that alliance would have the British people believe, and the Government’s policy should rest on that strength rather than a threadbare suggestion of weakness.