If you want shadow cabinet announcements that presage bigger developments, go to the Sinn Fein fringe at Labour Party conference.
In 2017, Owen Smith used his speech to call for Northern Ireland to stay in the EU after Brexit – an example of the sort of undiluted pro-Europeanism that eventually saw him sacked from the shadow cabinet.
This year, his successor as shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Tony Lloyd, made an announcement that attracted next to no coverage but could prove much more consequential. Addressing the same event, he said a Labour government would not call an early referendum on unification – that is, one within the lifetime of the next parliament.
As Secretary of State, Lloyd would be able to do so at his discretion. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, he may call a referendum if it “appears likely to him” that a majority of voters would back unification. The criteria by which that likelihood is measured would be his choice alone.
He might pick Sinn Fein topping the poll in the next Stormont election, whenever that happens. Or under the terms of the agreement, he could choose something else in order to facilitate going earlier than electoral cycles allow: a series of opinion polls showing majority support for unification, say, or, as the agreement allows, his own judgement.
So it matters that Lloyd – to the disappointment of his audience in Liverpool – said that he would not do this. It matters a great deal more than what John McDonnell told a Press Gallery lunch last month: “I’m a Republican. I long for a united Ireland, but I recognise democracy.” Some suggested that Theresa May could wield that line as a stick to induce the DUP to support her on Brexit votes.
Lloyd’s refusal to entertain an early border poll punctures that lazy truism that the DUP has everything to fear from a Labour government. The thinking – if you can call it that – goes something like this: Corbyn and McDonnell would offer Sinn Fein a border poll as inducement for them taking their seats to support his administration, or otherwise call one to fulfil their political fantasies. Add to this their fruity back catalogue on the Irish question and the DUP would never countenance a situation that destabilised a Conservative government to Jeremy Corbyn’s benefit.
Or would they? Regardless of whether McDonnell or Corbyn long for a united Ireland, or think Northern Ireland is a vestigial hangover from the British colonial project, or have 1916 as their debit card PINs, they cannot – and will not – impose a united Ireland unilaterally. They certainly won’t call a probably unwinnable border poll unnecessarily and destructively early for the hell of it. “That would be a decision we would make within the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and if that is the wish then clearly such a poll would happen,” Corbyn told an audience at Queen’s University Belfast in May. “I am not asking for it, I am not advocating for it.”
Compare that heavily contingent and ultimately unlikely scenario – played down by every Labour politician who would have a hand in making the call – to what the DUP perceives as the very real threat to the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom posed by Theresa May’s backstop, and the provisions therein that only apply to Northern Ireland. It’s obvious that the threat of a Labour government whose Brexit policies do not violate the DUP’s ultimate red line in the way that the prime minister’s do is no threat at all, regardless of whether it’s led by Corbyn and McDonnell. It would also ultimately be better for Northern Ireland, as senior business figures there admit.
The political lesson to draw from this is that if DUP is to back the Conservatives in a vote of no confidence – which I think is still by far the most likely scenario, if one is called – then it won’t be because doing so will lead to a general election that might return a government whose leaders might, despite an overwhelming body of evidence to the contrary, call a border poll that could, but isn’t certain to, lead to a united Ireland.
What will stop them is bird-in-the-handery. In this parliament, both the Conservative government and its Eurosceptic counter-insurgency have accepted that they can only command a majority with the DUP, and are neglecting all the other routes by which one could be achieved. The unionists are not going to give this up lightly, not least because they cannot be certain of matching the ten seat haul they won in 2017. For all Nigel Dodds’s theatrical overtures to Corbyn over the past week, there is no reason for the party to risk a parliament that diminishes its returns and reduces its leverage.
Hence their close relationship with the ERG: they are seeking to demonstrate to the Conservative Party at large that they can only govern with their consent, and that means pursuing their Brexit. Should that fail, yes, they could live with the opposition winning the subsequent election – but it doesn’t follow that they will prioritise one, or that they really want it.