Martin Kettle is right to draw attention to the risk that a narrow victory for reunification in any Northern Irish border poll would not be accepted by sections of the unionist community (The success of Sinn Féin surely brings the UK’s breakup nearer, Journal, 13 February). But he is wrong if he thinks that such a poll is imminent. The secretary of state for Northern Ireland can initiate a border referendum only 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”.
The opinion poll carried out by Lord Ashcroft suggests that 46% of voters favour reunification, while 45% do not. Does this mean it “appears likely” that voters would support reunification? No, it does not. It is possible they might, but it is more than possible they might not, once the undecided are added in. A reasonable interpretation of the legislation would therefore be that the secretary of state must hold a referendum once the opinion polls consistently show a significantly higher level of support for reunification than against.
A 60/40 split would be the right sort of indicator, not least because it would show cross community support. But until then all parties should focus on making devolved government in Belfast a success. Risking a civil war in Northern Ireland is in no one’s interest.
Emeritus professor of public international law, University of Edinburgh
• Martin Kettle warns that Brexit combined with Sinn Féin’s success in the Irish election could lead to the breakup of the UK. This may well be true, but if so, where is the downside for this English nationalist Tory government? Northern Ireland is a historic economic and political burden which few English Tories would really miss. Reunification of Ireland also removes a complex problem in England’s dealings with its neighbours.
Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images
Meanwhile, Scotland is probably lost for ever to the Tories but might conceivably return more Labour MPs in the future, putting Tory hegemony at risk. So Scottish independence would probably lock in a permanent Tory majority in the rump UK. Given the Tories’ ruthless determination to pursue damaging ideological goals at any cost in order to secure power, why would they balk at this?
• The crux of Brexit was always the resolution to the border problem between the UK and Ireland. Rather than the backstop, Boris Johnson reverted back to the original EU proposal of a border in the Irish Sea (which Theresa May felt no British prime minister could ever accept). Benign neglect seems to be creating an economic union on the island of Ireland with the policy of increased friction and border controls.
Seeming to have not given much thought to any wider implications, physical proximity will surely lead to, ironically, ever closer union as a result of the government’s mantra of getting Brexit done. To add to the saga of indifference, we see another Northern Ireland secretary replaced for no discernible reason beyond prime ministerial pique. It has been hard to see any convincing strategic thinking by any Brexiter on the future of the union since 2016.
Stockport, Greater Manchester
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