Referenda, Majority & Consent







It seems odd that those most vocal within Irish nationalism who challenge the majority outcome from the Brexit referendum are to the fore demanding a Border Poll where frankly fifty percent plus one vote would be acclaimed a victory.

That is evident in the squeals in response to Lord Kilclooney’s recent tweet on the subject 

That tweet was a comment to Leo Varadkar’s wider reflection on the nature/outcome of a border poll. 

“I wouldn’t like us to get to the point whereby we are changing the constitutional position here in Northern Ireland on a 50% plus one basis,” Mr Varadkar said.

“One of the best things about the Good Friday Agreement is that it did get very strong cross border support – that’s why there was a 70% for it.

“I don’t think that there would be a 70% vote for a united Ireland in the morning, for example, or anything remotely close to that.

“And I really think we should focus on making the agreement that we have work.”

Not something Sinn Fein would wants to hear.

The debate is not a new one. Leaving aside the appropriateness of referenda as a means of expressing democratic will, the matter reminded Jeff Dudgeon of an article he had written and submitted to a local political magazine back in 1993. At the time the magazine’s Editor spiked it.

Here is Jeff Dudgeon’s 1993 take on the nature of majority and principle of consent. The reader can decide to what extent the article is relevant to, or is a reflection of, political deliberation today. 

Whenever a constitution is drawn up, be it for a sports club or a sovereign state, there is always a special set of voting rules for its amendment. It is well recognised that changing the constitution is a fundamental matter and must therefore have sufficiently whole‑hearted support of the those voting or entitled to vote.

The measure of such a level of support is frequently a two‑thirds majority of those voting, or, as in the case of the 1979 Scottish and Welsh devolution referenda, the support of 40% of the electorate.

Without sufficient support, chaos can ensue when a vote determines the outcome of a particularly fractious dispute; particularly as such change heralded tends to be irrevocable.

This question is not being openly addressed here in Northern Ireland though it is being considered and perhaps even being unconsciously absorbed.

Much of the psychological strength behind the high morale and the endurance of the Provisional IRA in its long campaign has come out of the numerical growth of the Catholic population in Northern Ireland and, at the same time, its significantly heightened wealth and prosperity.

The Catholic proportion of the population has moved in twenty‑five years from a longstanding minority position of a third, to one of around forty percent. A major cause of this, aside from the seriously high birth rate unique in Europe outside Ireland has been the lessening in the differential Catholic and Protestant emigration rates.

The Protestant emigration rate has in turn been increased by the IRA war itself, and the beginning of a sense of becoming unwelcome in their own country. This is exemplified by expression of triumphalism and arrogance in the Queens University Students Union (* see note at end), which has now alienated a generation of Protestant young people and encouraged their drift towards seeking further education in Britain.

Once a minority reaches 40% of the population, it ceases to be a minority in reality. It can never again be oppressed, let alone ignored; it has to become an integral part of the governing of that society and it realises this. It is not that a 49% minority cannot be governed, or a sullen majority controlled, it is that government cannot be switched, or control placed into the hands of a new majority that has just crested 50%, without risks of colossal strife.

The first response of that 40% to its new strength is inevitably a sense of release, combined with, at best, a seeking for redress of old wrongs, or, at worst, revenge.

A feeling of destiny is also strong, as it considers itself to be running with the tide of history towards, not just emancipation, but victory.

Combine this with the physical force tradition of Irish Republicanism, demonstrated since the turn of the century by Sinn Fein and the IRA, and you have the reason for the Provisional IRA’s military campaign, unequalled in Europe since the war for its ferocity, ingenuity and tenacity.

Obviously, many Catholics have not gone to these extremes. It is in the nature of people to respond differently.

The change in the Alliance Party vote reveals, however, the gradual process that is often involved, where Catholics, especially from the east of the Province, gradually switch from the Alliance party to the SDLP. This was again evident in the recent local elections in North and South Belfast as compared to the elections of 1989.

However, after the first flush of pleasure in the freedoms granted by the effective ending of minority status, comes the dawning recognition that there is still a long way to go, if ever, before the Protestant community’s proportion of the population reduces below the critical 33% mark, whereupon it may safely be ignored, patronised – quaint ethnic Orange marches at the Folk Museum on Bank holidays – or oppressed.

In between times and if left to our own devices, a Bosnia‑type situation will evolve, with all that entails, unless the arrangements for what constitutes useful consent are reviewed.

The IRA appears to be beginning to realise what the future holds and it is that realisation that is putting the brake on some of their more sanguine ambitions, such as withdrawal within the lifetime of the Parliament.

The shortcut to supremacy, they have come to recognise, is to get Britain to do the needful itself – crush the spirit out of the Protestant community, and, if necessary using the British army – the life out of it.

Hence the Hume/Adams pact and the many and various themes on joint sovereignty, or, to give it the new politically correct twist, “Cross‑Border Bodies.” This also involves demands for a total demilitarisation of all groups, be they legal or not.

The momentary presence in Dick Spring’s six principles of the concept that Irish unity required the consent of the majority of Unionists, as opposed to a majority of Northern Ireland voters, was a rare recognition of the dangers ahead.

It is noticeable and worrying that Sir Patrick Mayhew, himself, took the trouble, unilaterally, to talk that wording out of the Spring Six as “A piece of hasty drafting.” Dick Spring hastened to oblige.

The fact that a border poll with 50% plus one of those voting favouring Irish unity, would not of itself bring that about, is beginning to sink in.

The example of Yugoslavia (Croatia and Bosnia) is seriously real. The referenda in both those provinces led inexorably to re‑partition, not freedom, as neither place had minorities under the critical level. Indeed, Bosnia had a double set of minorities and despite levels of coexistence and inter‑marriage unknown in Ulster, the whole mixture is being undone, house by house and family by family.

In opinion polls, the fact that a considerable majority of Catholics go along with direct rule and do not favour a precipitate united Ireland, despite two‑thirds of them voting for the SDLP and Sinn Fein who do favour it, is a contradiction that is explained by the voters realising just how fragile matters are with two such large communities.

The average Catholic elector is well aware that a vote for Irish unity now, even if a simple majority was available, would result neither in unity or peace. Wisely, they want to wait until it is safe; that is, when the proportions are effectively reversed.

While Protestants remain so populous and distinct a community, concentrated quite heavily in areas to the east, closest to Scotland, a simple majority vote for unity could only mean secession and an instant picking out of new frontiers, if necessary street by street.

It is not in the nature of rival ethnic groups to redraw their (artificial) borders incrementally as circumstances change. (All the world’s international boundaries are artificial, being constructed by people.)

The Provisionals, by sheer passage of time without ultimate success, are having the notion seeped into their psyche that the demoralisation of the Protestant community can be hastened as much by political rearrangements as by war. Peace can advance their progress during the critical swap‑round decades that they believe are inevitable, where continuing war might delay or prevent it.

The umbrella of the multi‑national United Kingdom, which has restrained and contained the low level ethnic war, is now to be utilised in suppressing the Unionist community until it loses its will; the political mechanism being ‘the pan‑nationalist front’.

However, the United Kingdom unwittingly has prolonged that war and will probably continue to do so by its refusal to balance concessions to nationalism with a strengthening of the Union, by also drawing all the people into the mainstream of the U.K. body politic, as witnessed by the continued refusal of ‘New Labour’ to organise, or accept members from within the Province.

Without that happening, the next decades which might see an enforced changeover (or if the Republic drops out of the ‘consensus’ might not) will only see conflict, as the Protestant population wriggles on the hook of an internal settlement with an enhanced Anglo‑Irish agreement and without the chance to escape, however temporarily, into the United Kingdom.

Yugoslavia went to war when the collapse of Communism let the various nationalities strike out on their own and when the European Community, foolishly, gave recognition to new sovereign states that utilised the artificial frontiers given to them as provinces by President Tito. These ethnic boundaries were never designed to be international frontiers – far from it.

The power of the United Kingdom, as a multi‑ethnic state, to provide an alternative to Ulster’s rival loyalties is unfortunately still not being utilised. Consequently we may have a slow twenty‑five year version of the Bosnian and Croatian wars with the worst yet to come. If a quick Hume/Adams style ‘peace’ remains Dublin’s only policy and unless the balance of integration is also made available to assuage the Protestant community, who never fail to make it their primary political choice in opinion polls.

(Integration is never ‘full’ or ‘total’ since it can be reversed as it was in 1921. It is the opposite of disintegration.)

We will need mentally to continue to await a two‑thirds majority for Irish unity if people wish it to be achieved without all‑out war or genocide.


* This refers to a prolonged era of rancorous student politics at QUB Student’s Union that culminated in the introduction of a ‘bi-lingual’ policy, following a long campaign by republican factions that pressed for Irish as a ‘weapon’ against oppression. The policy was eventually removed by order of the University. The policy seriously damaged community relations at QUB for a significant period of time.


Jeffrey Dudgeon [written in 1993]