I heard it proposed by Michael Portillo (BBC This Week 13/6/19), that a Johnson government might solve the Irish conundrum by holding a referendum in Northern Ireland, which voted by a majority to Remain in 2016.

If the vote was similar, Northern Ireland would remain in the EU, or at least stay in the Customs Union and the border could then stay open. Edit I do not believe it is envisaged that this would involve Irish unification.

However that would involve the goods entering the mainland UK being controlled.

So what puzzles me is how Johnson would expect to get the agreement of the DUP, who would surely oppose it - as they have continually done any idea of a "border in the Irish sea".

And without DUP support how could the Johnson Tories get an Act passed for a Northern Ireland Referendum?

Another problem to which it would give rise would be that if Northern Ireland, as part of the UK, remained in the EU the SNP would have an even stronger case for Scotland remaining. So would we have to rebuild Hadrian's Wall, not to keep out the Scottish Barbarians, as the Romans found necessary, but their duty-free goods?

  • Without a quote from Boris Johnson himself, or a spokesman, this is just a suggestion by Michael Portillo.
    – Sjoerd
    Jun 19 '19 at 22:48
  • VTC. The hyperbole used, among others, makes it clear this is a pushing-a-POV question.
    – Sjoerd
    Jun 19 '19 at 22:48
  • Time will tell.
    – Trilarion
    Jun 20 '19 at 21:28

The Northern Ireland Act 1998 gives the Secretary of State for NI the power to call a border poll. In practice they would need agreement from the Irish government as there would likely need to be a referendum on that side too, as of course the Irish government would have to accept NI joining the ROI.

Doing so would likely cause the DUP to suspend support for the UK government. However, that is due to happen soon anyway, as the agreement expires at the end of the current parliamentary session and it's not certain if the DUP would renew it.

Additionally, if the poll did result in the reunification of Ireland and subsequent brexit by the UK, it's possible that the minority Conservative government could regain a majority in a subsequent election. Perhaps Boris believes that with brexit delivered support for the Brexit Party would evaporate and people would return to the Tories.

Of course it's an incredibly risky strategy, but recent polling suggests that Tory Party members would be willing to sacrifice the Union and Northern Ireland to get brexit.

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    @WS2 Without an additional Act of Parliament. Northern Ireland Act 1998 "It is hereby declared that Northern Ireland in its entirety remains part of the United Kingdom and shall not cease to be so without the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland voting in a poll held for the purposes of this section in accordance with Schedule 1." "The Secretary of State may by order direct the holding of a poll for the purposes of section 1 on a date specified in the order."
    – Caleth
    Jun 19 '19 at 11:34
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    @WS2 That gets them to 'the referendum happened, and unification was called for'. The actual change has to go through Parliament "But if the wish expressed by a majority in such a poll is that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland, the Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament such proposals to give effect to that wish as may be agreed between Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom and the Government of Ireland."
    – Caleth
    Jun 19 '19 at 11:37
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    Its not clear to me that Boris is suggesting ceding NI to Eire; rather he is proposing that NI remain part of the UK but with a customs border in the Irish sea rather than between NI and Eire. Of course in practice the distinction would be very small. Jun 19 '19 at 15:03
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    @user But I don't believe it was a "border poll" that Portillo was talking about - see my further comment on this page. In any case I'm fairly sure the UK government would not initiate that. I'm pretty sure it was a referendum to stay in the customs union he was talking about. And I have no idea at all how he would persuade the DUP to back that. And the SNP, not to mention Lib Dems and others in England would demand similarly.
    – WS2
    Jun 19 '19 at 15:05
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    @user No, I think what Martin means is that the full name of the Conservative Party is "the Conservative and Unionist Party" and so one might expect the party, at least in theory, to be against the breakup of the union.
    – owjburnham
    Jun 19 '19 at 16:22

DUP aside, any region of the UK getting another referendum outside a UK-wide referendum would be political suicide for the government. It would have to be imposed, but (by itself) it could probably pass Parliament.

It's still unlikey, because like you said, Scotland would demand the same right to stay in the EU customs union and a control border would have to be in place in mainland Britain as well.

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    It's not a referendum on brexit, it's a referendum on reunification.
    – Caleth
    Jun 19 '19 at 11:27
  • The question was regarding another Brexit referendum in NI, not a border poll.
    – zeroone
    Jun 19 '19 at 11:41
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    @Caleth As I understood it, what Michael Portillo was suggesting might happen would be a NI referendum on the EU, but on further thoughts it may have been about staying in the Customs Union. In either case I cannot imagine that the DUP would touch it with a barge pole, which would leave the government with no majority on that, and possibly none on "confidence and supply" either. Unless Johnson has a magic wand I can't see how we will get as far as Christmas without a general election.
    – WS2
    Jun 19 '19 at 13:12
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    This wouldn't be about a "another" referendum (on Brexit I suppose, unless the answer is suggesting that referenda in general are out forever?), this is specifically about the status of northern ireland after the UK exits the EU, which is one of the major contentious issues. There's no (to me) obvious reason why that would need to be a UK wide referendum.
    – Cubic
    Jun 19 '19 at 15:26

It wouldn't be 100% necessary to have DUP support for this, since there could be votes from other sources. Sinn Fein might decide that this is something they should vote for. SNP might decide that Northern Ireland leaving the UK is a good start. I have no idea what Labour MPs would think about it, but they wouldn't vote against the government on principle on this question.

  • Note, I have edited the question. I do not believe this would involve Irish unification. The Sinn Fein members will never appear at Westminster.
    – WS2
    Jun 19 '19 at 19:53
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    @WS2 While it's easy to say "Sinn Fein won't ever appear in Westminster", if there was a close vote on "enact unification" I wouldn't be surprised if they did, given it's their single (Westminster) issue
    – Caleth
    Jun 20 '19 at 9:12

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