Supermajorities and Neverendums…

Gavin Lafferty is from Belfast

One of the Unionist posters on our website I hold in the highest esteem is Choyaa. His recent OP on the online trolling and harassment faced by unionists was a bit of an eye-opener, as were the responses that OP provoked. It definitely made me reflect on some of the terms I have used in the past.

Choyaa’s habit of making me think extends to his posts on twitter, one of his more recent catching my eye.

Choyaa has issues with the concept of a ‘neverendum’, terming it a significantly imbalanced process.

A neverendum refers to the idea that nationalists, whether here or in Scotland, can keep pushing for referendums on either Irish reunification or Scottish independence. If defeated, they can try again at a later stage. Yet if the referendums go the way the nationalists want, that’s it. There would no further referendum a few years down the line to see if an independent Scotland wished to reunite with England, nor would there be a referendum to magic Northern Ireland back into existence (even if the six counties could be separated intact, the idea that having got rid of us with honour the English would ever consider taking us back is one for the birds in my opinion).

To paraphrase Golda Meir, ‘Nationalists can lose many times. Unionists can lose only once’.

Choyaa argues this is imbalanced. He’s right of course, if I have multiple opportunities at achieving my aim and you never have a chance to reverse that, then that is an imbalance.

But is the imbalance itself wrong? A better question would be to ask, why does the imbalance exist at all?

In an Irish context, I would argue the imbalance has come about because partition is fundamentally unstable. It takes a lot of effort to keep the island partitioned after all, and sometimes we neglect to appreciate just how much hard work that actually is.

A huge swathe of territory is populated by people who, given the opportunity, would happily be governed by the Republic. A lot of effort is spent there in facilitating their acceptance of the current constitutional status quo (the main part of which is achieved by the maintenance of a peaceful path to end that status quo).

A massive subvention from England is required to keep the state barely ticking over at current levels. And as Seaan UiNeill has argued persuasively on many occasions, partition was a huge factor in facilitating the north’s transition from an industrial powerhouse to an economic failure, as partition succeeded in separating the north from its own natural economic hinterland whilst not appreciating just how important engagement with that economic hinterland was to their own prosperity.

The idea of reuniting the island to resolve the issues partition causes is simply too strong and too obvious to ever be permanently defeated in a single referendum held at a single point in time, which is surely the logical conclusion to the prospect of ‘Neverendums’, that a question is posed once and the outcome is binding on all to come. We have seen what happens if democratic pathways to legitimate aspirations are not present and as a solution it simply would not work.

It is the privilege of Unionism that they live within their preferred constitutional setup. It is Nationalism’s burden that they don’t, but they are allowed endless leeway in achieving it. That is the bargain we made in the Good Friday Agreement on the constitutional issue.

What I think would be a reasonable approach to the possibility of ‘Neverendums’ is an agreed cooldown on asking the question again. At the moment that is set at seven years, but seven years can reasonably be said to be too short a time and could lead to the instability Choyaa seeks to avoid. Perhaps a greater period between possible referendums, say fifteen years, could be agreed? That would allow unionism a substantial breather if they won a border poll and allow us all a minimum of fifteen years to focus on other things without the fear of being catapulted into yet another constitutional debate after the conclusion of the previous one. And perhaps if paired with something Nationalism wants, such as the actual criteria necessary for the calling of a poll, an equitable arrangement for everyone that works for everyone could be the result?

But while neverendums are one half of the topics I have seen bandied about today in relation to the Belfast Telegraph poll, the other is the increasingly unwelcome and yet regular spectre of the super-majority.

A few weeks ago, Steve Baker, one of the Conservative ministers at the Northern Ireland Office, dolefully informed the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly group that the Brexit referendum, of which he as an ardent supporter of the leave position should have been subject to a supermajority of about 60% to pass. In defense of his position, which he acknowledged would have meant the Leave campaign would have failed, he suggested that with a super-majority, much of the rancor in British politics that flowed from the narrow result would have been avoided. As a hypothetical it is definitely an interesting idea on its own merits. Maybe someone will explore it someday.

However, I would wager that Mr. Baker did not bring up this epiphany because he felt the guilt of instigating much of that rancor in the post-Brexit period. After all he described himself as a ‘systematic plotter’ against Theresa May in the recent State of Chaos series from the BBC, systematic plotting he engaged in as he felt the Brexit May was delivering was not as pure as it should be. Were guilt the primary factor, that surely would have been the moment to express it to the nation at large, rather than before a faintly obscure grouping whose goings-on would only be of interest to those of us in the north. No, my strong suspicion is that Mr. Baker expressed these thoughts to give himself the purported authority, earned through harsh experience of course, to say that a referendum on Irish reunification (and unspoken, doubtless a future referendum on Scottish independence) should be conducted on the basis of a super-majority.

“Look at what happened with Brexit!” Mr. Baker is saying. “You’d have to be mad to want to conduct a referendum on a 50%+1 basis”.

Mr. Baker’s comments prompted a slap down from the Irish government and the SDLP of course. I believe it is grotesquely cynical for a man who achieved his goals, and who helped bulldoze his version of that goal through parliament heedless of the feelings of the narrowly defeated remain bloc, to try and pervert that experience to pull up on the ladder on those seeking changes he doesn’t agree with. But he did prompt a conversation within the north and the recent Lucid Talk poll included a question on whether a super-majority was desirable.

The results in the Belfast Telegraph were illuminating. Six in ten of us believe a 50%+1 basis for unity referendum is sufficient but crucially, seven in ten unionists are in favor of a super-majority requirement. Ian Paisley Jr has been pushing a private members bill on that basis.

Now before I proceed, I wish to clarify there is no realistic prospect of a super-majority requirement for a unity referendum. Suzanne Breen in her column in the Belfast Telegraph on the matter is surely right to describe it as an incredibly undemocratic action. It would consider a unionist vote as having more value with a nationalist one.

And the outrage within Nationalism should such a change be made, which by necessity would be done without their consent (and unlike the protocol, actually on a matter specifically deemed to be related to the principle of consent) would probably be enough to finally collapse the Good Friday Agreement. It would give credence to the arguments advanced by the dissidents that the British could not be trusted to play fair on the question of Irish unity.

It would create shockwaves that would inevitably draw in the Irish government, the European Union and ultimately the Americans. Frankly, it’s a headache the British can and will do without as Mr. Baker’s colleagues made VERY clear when they let it be known Mr. Baker was very much speaking personally.

If it were a kite flying exercise, the kite never got airborne. It is NOT going to happen.

But seven in ten unionists wish to change the rules. I would assume that this is not because they accept Baker’s purported argument that a constitutional change of this magnitude should have the maximum possible buy-in, but far more likely that it’s the simple fact that a super-majority would safely put the date a border poll could be lost as far into the future as possible and allow Northern Ireland to survive on the whim of a minority.

I must confess I find myself disappointed but not surprised by this attitude. Yes, on one level it is understandable that Unionists would unapologetically seek any means necessary for shoring up the union as they can. Their political rationale is contained within their very name after all.

But on the other hand, a super-majority on this issue is such a violation of democratic norms, all it can do is feed the idea that unionism is only okay with democracy so long as the result is unionism wins, an idea with plentiful evidence I am afraid to say. When the First Home Rule bill (1886) was proposed, Unionism used its influence in the unelected House of Lords to thwart the House of Commons. The same again with the Second Home Rule Bill (1893). When the power of the House of Lords was neutered and the Third Home Rule bill (1912) brought forward, Unionism threatened insurrection. That insurrection was only averted by the First World War, and in the end, Unionists were given a state wherein their majority was demographically engineered to be copper-fastened and permanent, all in defiance of democracy. And it was in such a state that Unionist politicians discovered the virtue of democracy, but of course democracy was easy to accept for them when the results were now pre-ordained. Decade after decade of Unionist leaders pointing at polls and citing censuses to claim democratic legitimacy followed. There is a reason that nationalism conceding the principle of consent on the basis of the wishes of the majority of the population of the north was so significant in the GFA. It may have seemed blindingly obvious to outsiders, and it may have been an acknowledgment of reality, but it was also a concession that our national future would be determined using a franchise that had been designed with Unionist interests in mind. It was a highly symbolic concession, but a meaningful one.

And yet a poll like this gives pause. Was the conversion to democratic norms in the 1920s really only skin deep? Was the nationalist acceptance of the franchise designed for unionism only enough so long as it was known nationalists could never win? Was it really only acceptable so long as the end result of any vote was known in advance? This poll strongly suggests that is indeed the case and that a large chunk of unionism has a utilitarian relationship with democracy, employing it when it is only of service.

Which is why references to the Brexit referendum are so dangerous. They provide an intellectual framework for those who wish to stymie democratic change through referendums. After all, we all lived through the chaos of Brexit and how it rent British politics apart, who would want that in an Irish unity context wherein that unity was delivered by a narrow majority? Can you imagine the division the English saw over Brexit but compounded by all the bitter history we share on this island? It all sounds so very reasonable that a big majority in favor of such a drastic change should be required, doesn’t it?

But it’s not reasonable. Whilst as big a majority in favour of reunification is highly desirable, that desirable criteria should not override the fundamental criteria of each vote being treated equally. It is my belief that allowing democracy to be subverted a hundred years ago prolonged the suffering on our island and allowed it to be transmitted to multiple future generations. It won’t be allowed to happen again, and we should all make sure our voices are heard in ensuring that.

After all, the polling shows six in ten of us are in favor of a 50%+1 criterion. That’s 60%.

A super-majority in other words.


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