Referenda: a democratic illusion

The constitutional status of any country or region has rarely been decided by the people. It’s nearly always been achieved by default as old orders collapse and, even then, decided by a political elite behind closed doors who present the people with a fait accompli.

This makes the frenzy of polls on Irish unity in recent times all the more irrelevant. It seems it’s harvest time for nerdy academics who compile these things for large fees. But their harvest is nothing but empty air. It does not matter a jot what the people think at this point about Irish unity. It’s events. not polls, that will dictate what ultimately happens – and what people come to think in reaction to those events.

Democracy: a spectator sport

These polls might be a worthwhile exercise if the Irish people – north and south – ever had had a meaningful say in their constitutional arrangements History shows that they never have had much of a say.

The terms of independence granted to the twenty-six counties in 1922, it was negotiated behind closed doors in London and was never put to the people. It was decided on by the newly created Irish political elite in the Dáil Éireann. Partition was also not voted on by the people in any part of the island. The fate of the northern six counties was tightly controlled by Big House unionism. The people were largely spectators.

It took fifty years before there was any vote on the constitution. In 1973 there was the first and only border poll, but it was confined to Northern Ireland and it was boycotted by nationalists, making it largely a paper exercise.

Legally unenforceable

The Good Friday Agreement in 1998  – itself a creation of political elites carefully controlled by Britain and America – updated the Northern Ireland (Border Poll) Act 1972 with this meaningless phrase:

‘the Secretary of State shall exercise the power under paragraph 1 if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.’ (my emphasis)

This is legally unenforceable. How do you prove what ‘appears likely’ to anyone?

I can think of no people in modern times who achieved independence through the result of a  referendum. It is always part of a much wider campaign of political agitation, sometimes violent and the collapse of the old order.

For this reason I have always been sceptical of the strategy for Scottish independence. I could find no historical precedent for a nation using the democratic mechanism of a referendum alone to secede from a larger power bloc. Sadly, the 2014 Scottish independence referendum proved this theory correct.

Scottish referendum 2014

The modern state is too powerful; its control of the omnipresent media is complete and through this all-powerful tool the state manages most public opinion. So the result of any vote is manufactured by the state. This is more true in the British state than in many others. To attempt to break free of it by a vote is the height of naivety. History shows that the only way for secession to succeed is either by widespread civil disobedience or unrest making the region ungovernable e.g. India or by the simple mechanism of the governing power bloc collapsing internally e.g. the USSR, thereby achieving secession more or less by default. The latter is much more common.

The meaning of government

By this measure Scotland, and for that matter the north of Ireland, will get its independence from the United Kingdom only if the UK disintegrates under the weight of Brexit or if the UK political elite decides it is expedient to break the union. Widespread civil disobedience or unrest seems unlikely.


As I have said, seismic shifts in constitutional arrangements have rarely been achieved by democratic means because of the power of the state and a natural aversion to change among many people. It is iconic events, not votes that have propelled the necessary changes. These events change old attitudes and values enabling radical constitutional change, that was previously unthinkable, to proceed.

In Ireland this was seen with the 1916 Rising. Without this event there would not have been the separation of the twenty-six counties from the rest of the UK. The Easter Rising of 1916 and the British reaction to it changed many Irish attitudes to Britain. Pearse and Connolly had banked on this. They knew the Irish people of the time were too conservative and resistant to radical change under normal circumstances to contemplate overthrowing British rule.

Easter Rising, Dublin 1916

In this I am not advocating violent rebellion. The event that triggers change can be peaceful, or relatively so, but it must be iconic i.e. it must be symbolic of a change to the old order.

In more modern times the example of German reunification in 1990 is a good example. There was no referendum by the people in the old East and West Germanys. It was events that triggered the coming together. One was the collapse of the old USSR that had held the GDR separate from the West and the other was the destruction of the Berlin Wall. Both iconic events that were the catalyst for change. The end of the USSR triggered the secession of many states such as Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova among others. It is impossible to believe that these states would have achieved independence by referenda without the collapse of the old governing power, the USSR.

It is true that in some of these states referenda were used, but as part of a much wider campaign of major civil unrest and in the face of a collapsing governing power. The referenda merely bestowed some credibility on what was a fait accompli.

Collapse of Berlin Wall 1989

UK and the USSR

Some would argue that this is a flawed comparison – the UK, being a democracy, is very different from the the old despotic USSR.

That’s debatable.

After all the UK retains a powerful monarchy and a highly secretive elite ruling class. Recent British governments have been elected by less than a quarter of the population. At the last general election the governing party had to bribe their way back into office. Britain’s history is every bit as despotic as the USSR, using its military power to conquer over one-quarter of the globe. Today, through the City of London, that global financial empire is still maintained, often violently in order to access resources, such as oil.

Anglo-American invasion of Iraq 2003 cost 1 million lives

Here in Northern Ireland we had almost thirty years of civil unrest, if not outright civil war, with many iconic events, but it failed to achieve independence from Britain. That was for one reason only – the British state was too powerful. Now with Brexit that cohesive state power is under threat and, as some have said, the tectonic plates are shifting.

All that may be needed now is an iconic event or a mix of such events. History shows us that referenda on their own won’t cut it. They only have their place in recognising a fait accompli.

Such iconic events could be made up of the final Brexit deal; the internal collapse of the United Kingdom caused by that final deal; the death of an elderly monarch or it could have already happened when the iconic building of Irish unionism, Stormont, closed – perhaps for good – eighteen months ago, leaving Northern Ireland in an increasingly unsustainable vacuum.

Stormont Parliament building, Belfast

Time and events will tell – not referenda.







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