As a unionist, my hope is that Northern Ireland will remain firmly within the UK. But, the whole point of the peace process was to implement the commitments made in the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 and subsequently enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. At the heart of those commitments lies the principle of consent – giving the people on both sides of the border the right to make up their own minds on how best to resolve the issues between North and South.
While the threat of terrorist violence remains extant – as the dissident republican attempt to mount a bomb attack on Brexit day showed – it was frankly irresponsible of certain spokespeople linked to Theresa May’s administration to try to play up the risk of violence in an attempt to sell her doomed withdrawal agreement and the awful Northern Ireland backstop. By contrast, the Northern Ireland protocol within Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement looks prescient. By acknowledging the province’s special status, the British government has effectively given time and space to the people both north and south of the border to weigh up their options and decide their future. This is entirely within the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.
It remains unclear whether or not Sinn Fein will play a role in the next Dublin government. But the indications are that Brexit was not uppermost in the minds of voters in the South. If the party does secure a share of power, it will be for Sinn Fein to demonstrate delivery on issues such as housing and health – as well as to make its case for a united Ireland. If popular opinion moves decisively in favour of unification north and south of the border, the Secretary of State will be required under the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to make an Order in Council Northern Ireland enabling a border poll.
In March 2019, the Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll found that just 38% of the Northern Ireland public thought there should be a referendum on Irish reunification, while 45% thought there should not be. This suggests that the nationalists need to make very significant headway before a border poll can be triggered – or, indeed, won. As the unification debate unfolds, Boris Johnson should not waiver from his pledge to ‘level up’ outside London and the South East – and that must include bolstering Northern Ireland as a successful, vibrant and integral part of the United Kingdom.
Nick Busvine OBE is a former diplomat and presently Mayor of Sevenoaks. He is a partner at Herminius, a Corporate Advisory firm.