The Good Friday Agreement –  Constructive Ambiguity 

Over the past quarter century, there has existed in the North of Ireland a political policy known as “constructive ambiguity”. A stratagem long practiced by British colonial administrators, it first emerged in public discourse during the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement. More than a little patronising, the underlying concept meant that if crucial or contentious issues  remained ill-defined  the “quarrelsome” locals would be content to allow the matter rest and move on to do whatever London had in mind. Initially viewed as clever or even essential, this tactic may actually risk a return to conflict. 

Deliberate obfuscation was nevertheless deemed, at the time, to be of real merit and no aspect of the agreement was more obscure than the question of a border poll. Included in the GFA pact, ostensibly to address the major constitutional issue of partition, the poll appeared to offer the prospect of a referendum on Irish reunification. Its proponents argued that such a measure provided a peaceful path towards the long-held republican objective of breaking the connection with Britain.     

Nevertheless, endorsing the measure involved a significant compromise by Sinn Féin and the IRA in so far as it meant recognition and de facto acceptance of a unionist veto over constitutional change. However, the republican leadership’s negotiating team believed they had little option but to concede and thereafter faced the daunting task of selling the deal to their grassroots. 

Due to several factors including conflict fatigue and respect for the leadership’s judgement but primarily down to the oft-repeated assertion that changing demographics meant an electoral majority in favour of ending partition was inevitable sooner rather than later, the republican base reluctantly accepted the veto. 

Overlooked though by many republicans at the time, amidst the brouhaha surrounding the signing of the GFA, was the wording of the clause relating to the actual calling of a border poll. The British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was given the final say as to when it would happen based on his or her opinion that it would be “likely” that a majority of the electorate would vote for a united Ireland. Nothing more concrete or definitive than that: a British Cabinet minister’s opinion. 

As Alex Kane, one time advisor to David Trimble, wrote last month in his Irish News column1: “ … no amount of rallying, conferences, panels and assorted reports and research can get round the problem of there being no clear terms and conditions for the calling of a  border poll …” 

Current Secretary of State, Christopher Heaton-Harris, has resisted all efforts to have  him clarify the criteria for calling a referendum. His opposite number on the Labour front bench, Hilary Benn is offering nothing more either. Interviewed recently by the BBC during a visit to Belfast, Keir Starmer’s man resolutely refused to commit a future Labour government to anything specific. Significantly, though, he admitted that any decision to grant a border poll will ultimately be a political call. 

For once a British politician was being transparent, albeit most likely unintentionally. In other words, the British cabinet will decide (once again) whether or when it is politically and strategically expedient to permit its Irish colony to determine its own future. 

For a number of years after the signing of the GFA, this undemocratic anomaly, while recognised, was not central to political debate north or south of the border. No longer though. Circumstances and conditions on the ground have changed fundamentally and the issue is approaching a crucial stage. Sinn Féin, a signatory to the agreement, is now the largest party in Stormont with its vice-president occupying the office of First Minister. Moreover, the 2021 census revealed a significant demographic shift which surely opens to question the old certainty of a pro-union majority. 

Lately too, unionism had been thrown into turmoil. Consternation arising from the DUP’s acceptance of the Windsor framework has been compounded by the arrest and charging of the party’s leader Jeffrey Donaldson. Coupled with Stormont’s dismal record in relation to health, housing, education and infrastructure, the future for the northern political entity looks bleak. A despairing picture for the Union has been made still worse by ongoing revelations about the British state’s role in sectarian assassinations during the Troubles. 

Under such circumstances it is inevitable that sooner or later the demand for a referendum on partition will reach fever pitch. And if the current “constructive ambiguity” stance remains British government policy, two dangerous scenarios  emerge. For one, absence of clarity will prevent rational analysis and debate, thus generating possible communal tensions resulting in violence. Moreover, refusal to clarify criteria for enactment of the democratic entitlement to a referendum may tempt some to resort to arms in order to force the issue. 

There is no reason why either unwelcome prospect should become a reality if the British government takes the necessary steps to avoid the danger. Unfortunately though, our experience of John Bull’s record in Ireland does not inspire confidence.