I have just finished reading an excellent book on the partition of Ireland, entitled “The Partition, Ireland divided 1885 to 1925”, by Charles Townshend, published by Penguin.

It is highly topical. There are increasingly loud calls to prepare for a border poll, one outcome of which might be the unification of Ireland, the end of partition, and  the end of UK sovereignty over Northern Ireland.


These calls rely on the provision in the Belfast Agreement of 1998, which says that, if the British Secretary of State is of opinion that a majority in Northern Ireland would support unification with the rest of Ireland, he or she shall hold a poll in Northern Ireland, to allow the electorate there to make that choice.

Apparently, this clause in the Agreement was not the subject of close scrutiny in the final days of the negotiation in 1998. The focus in that week was on North/South institutions, decommissioning of weapons, and prisoner releases.

As a result of this lack of scrutiny, the Agreement provides little guidance as to how, and on what criteria, the Secretary of State might make such a momentous decision.

 Nor is the role of the Irish Government, who would have to absorb Northern Ireland given much attention in the Agreement. The Secretary of State is not even required to consult the Irish government.

 The Irish government would have to decide what special arrangements, if any, they might make to ensure that both communities in Northern Ireland, especially the one that is currently in favour of Union with Britain, is made to feel at home in a united Ireland.

 Nor does the Agreement set out how the public finance and tax implications of such a move would be dealt with. Northern Ireland currently receives a net subvention from London, which, if voters opted for a United Ireland, would thereafter have either to come from Dublin, or be rendered unnecessary by spending reductions on NI services.

 Incidentally, while a large majority (67%) in the Republic told opinion pollsters in 2021 they would vote for a united Ireland, only 41% said they would be prepared to pay higher taxes to accommodate it, and even fewer would be willing to change the national flag or the national anthem to accommodate the British identity of the unionist population. Of course answers to hypothetical poll questions about remote future possibilities are not reliable.

The Good Friday Agreement requires whichever government is sovereign over NI, to exercise its powers “with rigorous impartiality” and  to ensure “just and equal treatment” for the “identities, ethos and aspirations of both communities in” in NI. 

 “Aspirations” is the key word here.

 By definition, unionists and nationalists have different aspirations. One aspires to a united Ireland, the other aspires to continued union with Britain.

 The provision in the Belfast Agreement for border polls seems, in an important sense, to contradict the ” parity of esteem” between “aspirations” that is the underlying motive force of the Agreement.

This is because it provides for a one way street to Irish unity, with no possibility of a reversal of that decision.  While there could be several border polls, where the option of a United Ireland is offered and rejected, if that option is once chosen, in the last of those polls, that would be it. There would be no further Referenda.  The decision in favour on a united Ireland would be final. In that sense there is no parity between the aspirations. I am surprised this anomaly has not got more attention in unionist circles.

If a majority in Northern Ireland voted for a united Ireland in border poll, there would probably still be a significant minority in Northern Ireland who might continue to aspire to rejoin the United Kingdom.

 That aspiration is treated less favourably in the Agreement than is the aspiration of nationalists for a United Ireland.

 One aspiration, once achieved is irreversible. The other possible poll result (remaining in the UK) is reversible, no matter how many border polls confirming it, have taken place.


This border poll issue is, and thus will remain, contentious.

 Indeed the constant publicity about the possibility of a border poll is unsettling.

 It heightens the tension around the Northern Ireland Protocol, which Ulster Unionists wrongly see as a stepping stone to a United Ireland.

Calling for a united Ireland is seen as patriotic and popular in the Republic, even though repeating such calls may actually be a barrier to practical reconciliation between the communities in Northern Ireland.

Under the border poll provisions of the Agreement, a united Ireland could come about by a majority of a mere 51% to 49%,  Once it has happened, it would be irreversible, at least under the terms of the Agreement. This simple majoritarianism seems to me to run counter to something the then Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, said in the 1993 Downing Street Declaration.

He said

“Stability and wellbeing will not be found under any political system which is refused allegiance or rejected by a significant minority of those governed by it”.

If a united Ireland is carried by 51/49, there would likely be a significant minority in Northern Ireland, who would refuse allegiance to the decision.  This would be geographically concentrated in parts of the province, where they might constitute a local majority. Experience suggest that policing such areas could become difficult for the United Ireland government.

 The framers of the border poll provisions of the Belfast Agreement do not seem to me to have taken sufficient account of Albert Reynolds wise words in the Downing Street Declaration. He saw further than they did.

Those who are interested in the issue of partition, border polls, and reconciliation between the tradition in Ireland should read Charles Townshend’s book.

 This book shows that the partition of Ireland grew out of genuine political difficulties, and out a sincere conflict of allegiances between nationalists and unionists. These are differences that have been mitigated only slightly, and continue to exist today.


Townshend traces the history and origins of the idea of dividing Ireland into

  + a bigger portion which actively wanted Home Rule and freedom from British domination, and

+  smaller portion, in North East Ulster, where a geographically concentrated population wanted continued British rule and rejected rule from Dublin.

Up to 1800, Ireland had had a Parliament of its own, sitting in Dublin.

 But Catholics, the majority population of the island, could not sit the Irish Parliament and the franchise was confined to the very wealthy.

Under the Act of Union of 1800, the Irish and British Parliaments were merged, Ireland having 100 seats and the rest of the now United Kingdom approximately 500 seats.

Catholics eventually were allowed to sit in the Union Parliament in 1829, but the franchise continued to restricted on property grounds.

 Irish MPs in Westminster continued to be a relatively powerless minority, and rarely were Ministers in UK governments.

 The British, or Union state, never truly integrated Ireland into a political unit with England, Scotland, and Wales. It is questionable whether it ever had the capacity or willingness to do so.

 Ireland continued to be administered by a local administration in Dublin which took its orders from London governments, in which Catholic Irish MPs rarely had any say. It was a form of colonial administration, similar to the one in India.

 This failure to integrate Ireland into the Union with England, Scotland and Wales was partly due to the fact that these nations were Protestant in religion, whereas Ireland, outside NE Ulster, was predominantly Catholic.

 The disastrous potato famine of 1845 to 1850, which cost millions of lives in Ireland, and to which the laissez faire economic policies of the Liberal government in London were a totally inadequate response, added to the sense of alienation.

From 1840 onwards there was agitation in Ireland either to repeal the Union, and restoration of  the Irish Parliament or, at least, to grant Ireland Home Rule and a Home Rule Parliament in Dublin with limited powers (excluding foreign affairs, defence and customs).

 Both these proposals envisaged Ireland having a single Parliament for the whole island, without any exclusion of NE Ulster.

From early on, opponents of Home Rule argued that allowing a Dublin Parliament to govern the 4 or 6 counties in NE Ulster, where a majority Protestant population did not want to be ruled by a Dublin Parliament, would be unfair or unworkable.

” Unionists” in NE Ulster did not want to find themselves being continually outvoted in a Dublin Parliament, in the same way as Irish Catholic MPs had become used to being continuously outvoted in the Union Parliament in London.

The first attempt to grant Home Rule to Ireland was put forward by William Gladstone in 1886.

Nationalism was a popular doctrine in the nineteenth century, and John Bright, the British Radical and Liberal statesman opposed Gladstones Home Rule proposal for all Ireland on the ground that there were two nationalities on the island of Ireland.

He said

“Ulster may be deemed a nationality differing from the rest of Ireland as much as Wales differs from England”.

Charles Stewart Parnell recognised there was a problem here. He said

“It is undoubtedly true that until the prejudices of the (Protestant and unionist) majority are conciliated….Ireland can never enjoy full freedom, can never be united”.

He was not, however in a position to put forward a solution to the dilemma that he acknowledged existed. In a sense that dilemma remains unaddressed to this day.

A Third attempt to introduce Home Rule was made in 1912 by a Liberal government led by Herbert Asquith.

Responding to Asquith’s Bill, one of his Liberal backbencher MP s, Thomas Agar Robartes, said that Ulster unionists and Irish nationalists were two different nations with

“different sentiments, character, history and religion”

 and that it would be impossible to fuse these two “incongruous elements” together.

 He proposed an amendment to the Home Rule Bill which would have allowed certain Ulster counties to opt out of Home Rule and continue to be ruled directly from London.

A similar argument was made by the Conservative leader, Arthur Balfour, who also opposed Home Rule for the whole island of Ireland, who said that the Unionists of NE Ulster and the population of the rest of Ireland had

 “two (different) sets of aspirations, two sets of ideals and two sets of historic memories”.

It is hard to say that Balfour was wrong. Shared ideals and  shared historic memories are what shape and sustain nations in difficult times.

Irish nationalists, supporting Home Rule, rejected these arguments.

 John Redmond described the notion that there were two nations on the island of Ireland

“revolting and hateful”.

 But neither he, nor most Irish nationalists, devoted enough thought, or imagination, to devising ways in which the incongruous elements, of Ulster unionists on the one hand, and Irish nationalists on the other, might be fused together in a single nation.

 In fairness to Redmond, it must be said that his support for recruitment to the British Army in 1914 and 1915 was a form of indirect response to Unionist sensibilities. He wanted to show that nationalists and unionists had some aspirations and allegiances in common.

That said the overwhelming majority of nationalists believed that no part of Ireland had a right to opt out.

Ireland was a geographic unit, an island, so, ipso facto, it should be one nation. This put physical geography ahead of human geography.

The only Irish nationalist who took Ulster unionist concerns seriously was the vice President of Sinn Fein, Father Michael O Flanagan, who admitted that

“in the last analysis, the test of nationality is the wish of the people”

And admitted that the Ulster unionists

“had never transferred their love and allegiance to Ireland”

 and said that Irish nationalists

“claim the right to decide what is to be our nation, but refuse them (Ulster Unionists) the same right”.

I am not sure how much influence Father O Flanagan on subsequent Sinn Fein policy although he continued to be active in the party. He seems to have been an eccentric individualist. He opposed the Treaty of 1921.

Going back a bit in time, many nationalists did not take Ulster unionist objections to Home Rule seriously at all.

They thought it was bluff, even when Ulster Unionists, opposed to Home Rule, armed themselves, and set up a Provisional Government to resist Dublin Rule.

The working assumption of Irish nationalists seems to have been that the Liberal government in London would coerce all of Ulster into accepting Home Rule. With hindsight, this seems quite unrealistic. The morality of such a course does not seem to have been explored by nationalist thinkers.

Nationalists argued that the resistance in Ulster to Home Rule was being fanned by elements of the British Conservative Party for domestic purposes. There was truth in this, but it was not determinative, in my opinion.


Irish nationalism also adopted a rhetoric that did not include Ulster unionist aspirations.

For example, the language of the Irish Gaelic was to be the national language of Ireland, and while some Ulster unionists would have been able to speak Irish, they would not have seen as part of a nation building project that belonged to them.

One nationalist writer, DP Moran said the

“foundation of the Irish is the Gael”

which excluded Ulster unionists (who are not of Gaelic stock) explicitly. 

Symbols, like the monarchy, which meant , and mean, a lot to unionists, were explicitly rejected by Irish Republicans.

 Indeed establishing an Irish Republic, and thus getting rid of the monarchy, seemed to be more important than avoiding partition. 

For example, Eamon de Valera, speaking in the Dail in 1921 during the Truce and before the Treaty negotiations commenced, said that if the Irish Republic was recognised, he would be in favour of

“giving each county the power to vote itself out of the Republic”.

In such a scenario, it is probable that, at the time (1921), Antrim, Down, Armagh and Derry would have voted to exclude themselves.

Back in September 1914, Home Rule for all Ireland was passed into law, but with a reservation that its implementation would be postponed until the World War, that had started a month earlier, was over.

 The issue of excluding parts of NE Ulster from Home Rule was left open to be dealt with in possible amending legislation.

 As a result of the 1916 Rebellion and development in British politics, Home Rule, as enacted in 1914 for all Ireland, was superseded 

+  in 1920, for the 6 counties of Northern Ireland, for the 6 counties of NE Ulster , with a local Parliament with similar powers to those that All Ireland Parliament would have had  under the original Home Rule plan and

 +  in 1921,  for the remaining 26 counties, by the Anglo Irish Treaty of that year whereby the rest of Ireland became a  Free State with its own army and freedom to set its own foreign and defence policy (Dominion status)

These arrangements have survived for the past 100 years. The Free State, now Republic has made good use of its independence, especially since it joined the EU.

 Northern Ireland has had a more difficult time because of a combination of bigotry, insecurity, discrimination, and terrorism.


In looking, objectively and clinically, at the possibility of a border poll, people on both sides of the Irish border should ask themselves some difficult questions.

 They must ask themselves honestly if the ideals, historic memories and allegiances of Northern unionists can realistically be reconciled with the ideals, historic memories and allegiances of Irish nationalists. The gap remains wide.

 Can these disparate elements be fused into a new civic patriotism, an identity that all can share?

If people do not believe that is possible, a united Ireland will not work, and it should not be supported in border polls.

The priority now should be reconciliation within Northern Ireland.

The work of reconciliation must be done, in the first place, by the people of Northern Ireland themselves, but with the active support of the Dublin and London governments. It should be seen as an end in itself and not as a preparation for either in united Ireland or continuance of the Union.

This can be brought about by shared achievements, of which all can be proud, which become part of a new shared historic memory, to replace gradually the divisive memories of the past.

Shared ideals must be forged by negotiation at every level among the people of Northern Ireland.

Unionists must begin to imagine themselves into the minds of Nationalists, and Nationalists into those of Unionists.

This requires a conscious and structured effort of the imagination, among every age group among the people of Northern Ireland.

 Instead of being boosters for one side or the other in the constitutional debate, artists, actors, poets and writers in Northern Ireland should lend their talents to this very demanding exercise of the imagination.

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