Theresa May knows that David Cameron will be remembered as the Prime Minister who lost Britain’s EU membership. And that he came closer to seeing Scotland break away from the UK than was comfortable. Accounts of her clash with Jacob Rees-Mogg over a referendum on Irish unity suggest that she is fearful of losing Northern Ireland: she does not, repeat not, want her legacy to be the break-up of the United Kingdom.
Her anxiety is shared by other senior Ministers – exacerbated, it seems, by the Belfast Agreement’s stipulation about the circumstances under which such a poll must be called. It says that this must happen “if at any time it appears likely to [the Northern Ireland Secretary] 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”. Since there will be different views in the province about that likelihood, Karen Bradley, and her successors, must potentially make a perilous judgement call. This does nothing to ease nerves.
But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that May and her Ministers are being spooked. As Henry Hill confirmed recently on this site, there is simply no credible polling evidence to suggest that the people of Northern Ireland want to leave the UK. Indeed, the most recent poll on the matter found that support for Irish unity stands at just one in five voters, with half the Catholics polled supporting the status quo. Those Ministers concede that no survey gives reason for alarm. In Scotland, of course, Brexit has actually helped the Unionist cause to date – the greatest single benefit of the referendum decision to date, and one that receives far less recognition than it should.
Meanwhile, Ireland’s emphatic rejection of its previous abortion ban (in nearly all cases) will reheat claims that Irish unity is on its way – as Northern Ireland’s people, who live under much the same bar, look south, yearning to live under a more liberal settlement. The claim is worth thinking through.
It is almost certain that there is a majority in the province for scrapping the ban: polls have repeatedly found one. But it is worth noting that last week’s Irish referendum found smaller majorities for ending it in some border areas than in most of the rest of Ireland. The country voted to drop the ban by 66 per cent to 34 per cent. But in Cavan-Monaghan, the result was 56 per cent to 46 per cent. Donegal actually voted No, by 52 per cent to 48 per cent.
The rough shape of those results would probably be replicated in rural areas on the other side of border. Are you looking for religion to unite those who live in the province, rather than divide them? If so, look no further than the abortion issue. “The unborn child is the big loser,” Ian Paisley protested on Twitter yesterday – a reminder that the most staunch ally of the Catholic bishops in Northern Ireland is…the DUP. Sinn Fein is pro-choice. The SDLP is in turmoil. Arlene Foster’s party can be relied upon to strike down any liberalising proposal in the Assembly by means of the petition of consent mechanism.
Then there is the question of whether the people of Northern Ireland feel so strongly about abortion – or same-sex marriage, which is also barred – as to put the issue near the top of their political wish-list, particularly given the narrower majority, in all likelihood, for change. This is unknown.
But if they do, it stands to reason that there is a less complicated means of forcing change than joining the Irish Republic – namely, living under the same legal framework as the rest of the United Kingdom. There are two potential ways of this coming about.
If the province’s political institutions are in abeyance, as at present, Parliament can simply impose change. This seems to be what at least one Cabinet Minister wants, according to the Sunday Times’ reading of a tweet from Penny Mordaunt yesterday.
At present, however, this idea is a non-starter. May is reliant on the DUP in the Commons. She is not going to antagonise it by forcing Great Britain’s laws on Northern Ireland. Nor should she in any event. The imposition of direct rule on the province would be debatable enough. Change to its abortion laws would be, in effect, a highly controversial form of that rule. Dramatic interventions by UK politicians in the province risk the law of unexpected consequences.
The other route is via the Assembly, if and when the institutions get going again. But as we have seen, that ways is blocked too. The DUP simply won’t have it.
So it is that all roads lead back to the DUP. As we say, there is no good reason why the abortion issue should put wind in the sails of a united Ireland. But, regardless of one’s take on abortion, Foster’s party should be careful. There might come a point where support for change becomes so overwhelming that politicians can no longer resist it. It could also be that Ireland’s more restrictive proposal – for abortion after 12 weeks rather than 24 – comes to look more attractive to a relatively conservative population (if implemented) than Great Britain’s. Further to that thought, it would be interesting to find out how much support there is for a 12 week settlement in England, Scotland and Wales.
Perhaps the people of Northern Ireland might, over the course of time, settle the issue for themselves in a referendum? We appreciate that these have been unacceptable recently, in the wake of the EU vote, among our own country’s ruling political class – or, at least, the class that held away over us until the people voted for Brexit. How lucky we all are that Ireland’s vote last week has made referendums respectable once again.