Referendum fever is crossing the Irish Sea

LAST Saturday, Tyrone defeated Derry in the final of the McKenna Cup at the Athletic Grounds in Armagh. Among the sell-out crowd was an unlikely acolyte of Ulster GAA: Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson. While right-wing unionists decried the DUP leader’s first trip to a GAA match as treachery, Robinson appeared to enjoy the game, even signing autographs inside the stadium.

Robinson’s companion at Saturday’s match was Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness. Judging by the shared smiles and chatter inside the VIP area at the Athletic Grounds, it seems fair to say that the deputy and First Minister were talking more about sport than politics.

Whether McGuinness mentioned his intention to push for a referendum on the constitutional future of the north to Robinson during the half-time break on Saturday will probably never be known, but in an interview published in Monday’s Irish Examiner, the deputy First Minister stated clearly for the first time his party’s desire for a vote on Irish unification in the near future. “It just seems to me to be a sensible timing,” he said. “It would be on the question of whether or not the people of the Six Counties wish to retain the link with the United Kingdom, or be part of a united Ireland.”

Referendums, it seems, are in the Irish Sea air. Both emboldened by and envious of the SNP’s recent success, Sinn Fein is keen to capitalise on the new, more fluid dispensation towards the UK’s constitutional future by putting the issue of Irish unity firmly on the political agenda.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, a referendum on Irish unification can be held no more than once every seven years. Any decision on such a plebiscite rests with the British secretary of state, although in practice it would require support from the DUP and even the Ulster Unionist party if it were to be given the green light.

McGuinness outlined a provisional timetable for such a referendum, saying that the vote could take place in the next Assembly term, possibly as early as 2016 – the centenary of the Easter Rising, the republican revolt that, eventually, paved the way for Irish independence. Comparisons with Bannockburn and 2014 have, unsurprisingly, not taken long to surface.

And yet, the political reality of Sinn Fein’s referendum gambit is very different to that of the SNP. Barring an act of God, a referendum on Irish unity in 2016 would be roundly rejected by Northern Irish voters. According to the 2001 census, just over 53 per cent of the population hails from a Protestant background, with 44 per cent from a Catholic background. However, the most recent Northern Ireland Life and Times survey found that 73 per cent backed the union with Britain: among that figure were 52 per cent of Catholics.

Putting the debate about a united Ireland on the political agenda appears to be the driving logic. Sinn Fein has watched with no little interest as the tenor of the independence debate in Scotland has shifted from process to specifics.

The ripple effects of the Scottish referendum are being felt across the UK: from Liberal Democrat power-broker Simon Hughes’ calls for an English parliament, to the wary glances being thrown northwards by Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones. But it is in Northern Ireland, with its long-established nationalist and unionist tribes, where any moves towards independence in Scotland are likely to be most keenly felt, and politically exploited.

Ironically it was McGuinness who cautioned Northern Irish politicians against getting involved in Scottish politics. Speaking before the Stormont Assembly last month he described Scottish independence as “an issue which could be used to create divisions in this house or even in our Executive or even between the First Minister and myself”.

For their part, Northern Irish unionists have made little secret of their position on the Scottish question. Speaking at a British-Irish Council summit in Dublin earlier this year, Peter Robinson spoke of his own Scottish roots and his desire for “Edinburgh to remain within the United Kingdom”. Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliot wrote in the Belfast Telegraph that “this is a time for us all, as unionists together, to support a continuance of a strong United Kingdom”.

A referendum on Irish unity would place Westminster in a bind. The Good Friday Agreement avers that the future of Northern Ireland will be settled by a majority vote of its people. Given the north’s turbulent history and its fractious relationship with Westminster, it would be difficult to countenance a Conservative or Labour leader wading in on the side of the union. Any repeat of the cross-party support marshalled against Scottish independence could have disastrous, even fatal, consequences in Northern Ireland.

All this talk of constitutional change omits one key player: the Republic of Ireland. In Dublin, appetite for unification is scant and getting scanter. The economic cost of absorbing the heavily subsidised Northern Irish state would almost certainly be beyond the Irish state in its current hairshirt incarnation. Indeed Sinn Fein owes its recent electoral success south of the border more to its left-wing position on social justice and employment than any tropes of republican history.

In Ireland right now, it’s a referendum that might not happen that’s prompting the most public discussion. A recent Red C poll showed that 72 per cent of the Irish electorate wants a plebiscite on the latest EU treaty. If Irish voters do get their wish, this’ll be one political game Westminster, Holyrood and Stormont will all be watching with interest.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman, February 1.