Explain for kids — Why isn't Northern Ireland demanding a stay/leave referendum like Scotland?



https://politics.stackexchange.com/a/34470 is too abstruse — the history and religion conflicts are too complicated. I'm seeking answers written for a 10 y.o.

Every week, I see a new article on the SNP or Nicola Sturgeon demanding a referendum to stay or leave the U.K. Why isn't Northern Ireland doing same? Deliberately I'm asking just about staying or leaving the U.K., not whether Northern Ireland will become an independent nation state or reunite with Republic of Ireland — don't hesitate to address both possibilities.

This doesn't duplicate Why isn't Northern Ireland demanding a referendum on joining Ireland, similar to the one in Scotland?, which was answered on Apr 10 2019, because the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement with 1246 pages was agreed on Dec. 26 2020.

Intellectually disabled

Posted 2021-01-14T21:50:15.560

Reputation: 1

4Like I’m Five – Fivesideddice – 2021-01-15T10:32:56.867


@Fivesideddice: Maybe clearer to link to the actual origins of "explain like I'm 5".

– Flater – 2021-01-15T10:43:17.583

3The SNP (and Greens) want Scotland to be an independent country. Sinn Fein and the SDLP want Northern Ireland to leave the UK and (re)unite with Ireland – CSM – 2021-01-15T13:49:24.937

"That's a great question for the morning. Now go to sleep." – Jason – 2021-01-19T01:31:20.153



On the Scottish side, it's important to remember the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence from the UK - just 2 years before the Brexit referendum.

As part of the campaign, Scots were promised that the only way to remain in the EU was to vote NO to independence; that an independent Scotland would automatically be ejected from the EU, and have to re-apply for entry with the unanimous approval of (then) 28 members.

EU members including Germany seemed neutral to positive about our chances, and even Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (despite internal politics with Catalonia) pointedly did not threaten a veto. (NOTE : indy-leaning source!) Now while I can find no explicit threat of a veto by the UK, their emphasis on the difficulties did beg the unspoken question, who else would do a thing like that?

At least partly as a result of this, Scotland voted against independence from the UK, before voting very strongly in 2016, in favour of remaining in the EU (about 62%/38% for Remain, or about six times the overall UK margin for Leave).

Well that didn't exactly work out as promised, and we are no longer in the EU, very much against Scottish wishes.

It's now clear that the best prospect for returning to the EU is via a renewed path to Independence, and a new referendum is the first step on that path, the grounds underlying the former referendum result having been completely undermined.

Meanwhile, Nicola has asked the EU to "keep the light on for us".

(As noted in a comment, it remains to be seen how smooth EU reentry will be in practice)

The highest voted answer is pretty good on Northern Ireland but it seems completely off the mark on Scotland without telling this side of the story. People's minds are very much in favour of the EU and the accepted answer appears unaware of this.

RonJohn makes the fair comment that this answer didn't actually answer the question about Northern Ireland. The Remain majority in NI was much smaller, which may partially explain why there is less outrage at the way Brexit has unfolded. In addition, the UK has made substantial (and expensive and awkward) accommodations to NI wishes, in part as required by the Good Friday Agreement.

Thus it seems reasonable for all parties in NI to (a) not rock the boat and re-open past political wounds, and (b) wait and see how well Brexit (including the open border to Eire, and any customs friction that may arise elsewhere) works out for NI in practice.

Brian Drummond

Posted 2021-01-14T21:50:15.560

Reputation: 682

2To be completely fair, it wasn't just the "rest of the UK" that had issues with Scotland remaining in, or immediately joining, the EU after the independence referendum (actually, I can't remember there being a veto threat from the UK, do you have a link? I had a look, but couldn't find anything about it.). Spain in particular were very cautious, due to Catalonia, and there was, depending on the source, threat of veto, or essentially slow walking the process to membership. – awjlogan – 2021-01-16T11:06:31.080

That obviously doesn't dilute the core of this answer :) However, it's still true that conditions for future EU membership are not at all clear, and while "keeping the lights on" is a good political soundbite, it is not reflective of what reality will be. – awjlogan – 2021-01-16T11:20:52.570

2@awjlogan with the exception of Spain's obvious caution (the Basques would follow Catalonia) my impression was the issues were about 90% the UK, with the EU giving the impression that rejoining was mostly a matter of procedure. But you're right, I1ll have to dig out references. – Brian Drummond – 2021-01-16T11:46:18.823

1The SNP needed to find an excuse for another "once in a lifetime" referendum. If it hadn't been Brexit, it would have simply been something else. – Valorum – 2021-01-16T14:18:56.923

1@BrianDrummond - as I recall it, both sides of the referendum explicitly asked for no "ruling" from the EU, as there wasn't any developed plan of what would come next. I hadn't considered that, at the time, the rest of the UK would still have been in the EU - thought: why would Scotland have to petition to rejoin, rather than (UK - Scotland)? Personally, I think 50:50 referenda have proven themselves to be a dreadful way to decide things - Brexit is a case in point: it's the most divisive way imaginable to "decide" anything. Roll on May..! – awjlogan – 2021-01-16T20:35:29.920

This answer simplifies the Scottish EU issue significantly, even going so far as to hint at a veiled threat from the UK to block Scottish entry to the EU when there was significantly more going on than that - the SNP wanted immediate access as a successor nation, and that was shot down by the UK and EU as Scotland would not be such a thing. Then they wanted a quick entry, which the EU shot down. Then they wanted entry without the Euro, which everyone shot down. They also wanted a monetary union in the Pound sterling, which the UK refused. The 2014 campaign was bad on many many levels. – Moo – 2021-01-16T20:58:32.887

@BrianDrummond yes but it simplifies it to the point where it adds its own nuance and becomes false. The 2014 referendum was a mess and the EU matter was one thing in a whole raft of things the SNP screwed up - insisting a monetary union was going to happen, insisting North Sea oil and gas revenues were stable enough to base an entire economy on (hah, then 2015 happened...) etc etc. But your answer “simplifies” it to “the UK screwed Scotland on the EU, nuff said”. – Moo – 2021-01-16T21:55:34.253

@Moo : Yes, other things could have been done differently. But the EU aspect has been reversed while others are essentially unchanged, and it is the EU aspect, not the others, that is driving the current activity. Therefore the EU aspect is relevant to the question while your other points are secondary. If you disagree with it, how do you see re-entry into the EU being achieved? – Brian Drummond – 2021-01-16T22:02:55.347

@BrianDrummond if you say so. Downvoted. – Moo – 2021-01-16T22:04:17.543

1The question is about NI, and I don't see a thing about it in this answer. – RonJohn – 2021-01-17T08:20:57.980

@RonJohn Good comment, Thanks. Added something. – Brian Drummond – 2021-01-17T13:44:00.700



In Scotland, the SNP wants to hold a referendum and change people's minds to their side. In ⁠Scotland we don't know who would win a referendum now. Perhaps the SNP would ⁠convince a majority to vote for independence. Perhaps the Conservative ⁠and Labour parties would win. The SNP wants a referendum because they think ⁠they might win. The other parties don't want a referendum because they fear they ⁠might lose.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, the division is much deeper. The Protestant people want to remain part of the UK. We know that the Protestant people would vote to stay.

Catholic people want to leave the UK. The Catholic people would vote to leave. And just like people don't often change their religion, it is very rare for people to change their mind about leaving or not leaving the UK. And because there are more Protestant people than Catholic people, we know the outcome of the referendum.

So the parties that want to leave the UK don't want a referendum because they know they would lose. And the parties that want to stay in the UK don't need a referendum because they have nothing to gain. This means that nobody wants a referendum.

The background is that there were centuries of violence in Northern Ireland, starting in the 12th century and escalating in recent decades, culminating in The Troubles between the 1960's and 1990's. There were bombs and murders. In 1998 the main paramilitary organisations promised to give up their bombs and guns in return for the promise of self-determination. Both sides fear that a referendum now would cause a return to violence.

James K

Posted 2021-01-14T21:50:15.560

Reputation: 70 324

32I'm aware that there are generalisations here that are not strictly true. Consider it a Lie To Children – James K – 2021-01-15T00:34:45.727

13I’m from the US and not of Irish or British heritage but I also grew up while the troubles were ongoing. As an uninvolved American this answer is perfectly clear and as someone who at least knows a little about it, this answer is well close enough to accurate for the apparent purpose of the question. – Damila – 2021-01-15T01:03:21.330

And the majority in NI is shifting to the Catholic side because of demographics. – Martin Schröder – 2021-01-15T08:09:08.943

26I wish this answer didn't use religion as the identifier for the factions. I suppose you know this isn't very accurate but there's no reason to continue this misapprehension to the next generation. Unionism or republicanism is a deep part of some people's culture and their religion is one aspect of this. – Eric Nolan – 2021-01-15T09:15:41.377

4@EricNolan religion is strongly correlated though, and helps highlight why people rarely switch position on unionism/republicanism where simply referring to the sides as unionist or republican wouldn't. The alternative: Irish & English/British would be even more controversial :p – Tristan – 2021-01-15T13:54:38.267

1My opinion, and maybe I'm wrong, is that the correlation is becoming less overtime. A lot of the reasons that might make Catholics to want to join the Irish side should be narrowing, abortion for example. Both countries have changed a lot (socially) in the past 100-150 years. – Kaithar – 2021-01-15T18:14:56.957

23@EricNolan I do hear you, however I'm reminded of an old Joke. "I was at a pub in Belfast when two big lads came up to me and say, 'You're not from round here, are you Catholic or Protestant?' So I say, 'Well actually I'm atheist' ... 'An atheist, is it. Well, are you a Catholic atheist?'." – James K – 2021-01-15T18:21:52.193

@Tristan especially since even Ian Paisley said you can't be an Ulsterman without being an Irishman – llama – 2021-01-15T18:52:20.743

1i hope you don't mind..your answer's great, but you have a lot of rep already. i accepted another answer just to help them on their way out. – Intellectually disabled – 2021-01-16T07:42:40.080

More importantly and more specifically, the Good Friday Accords that got the IRA to put down their guns involves a promise of no hard border between NI and the rest of Ireland. And with Brexit now a fact and still no provisions to handle that, the UK is now in violation of the GFA. – Shadur – 2021-01-16T15:29:38.967

@JamesK: As an atheist of mixed Irish and English blood, with a Catholic mother and a Protestant father, I have no idea how I would answer that question. Fortunately, as an American, it's not something I'm likely going to have to worry about. – Kevin – 2021-01-16T23:06:09.943

@EricNolan In my view yours is the most apposite comment here. Talking about Protestant and Catholic as though it were still 1690 is an anachronism. The so-called "troubles" had very little to do with churchgoing. – WS2 – 2021-01-17T08:24:52.367

@Kevin You would answer it based on whether you wanted to remain in the UK or join the Republic of Ireland. That was kind of my point. When I heard the joke the person was a muslim. That makes it funnier for me. It adds a second level to the joke. In NI anti-muslim sentiment isn't a problem, kind of like how high shoe prices aren't a problem for someone with no legs. For what it's worth I would not recommend spending time in places where someone is likely to ask you a question like that, regardless of whether you think they would like your answer. – Eric Nolan – 2021-01-17T11:12:32.500


Currently, Northern Ireland is locked in a delicate balancing act.

In the past, all views on NI's future have evoked violent reactions from opposition parties - whether that be remaining part of the union (opposed by republicans), independence (opposed by both), or joining the Republic of Ireland (opposed by unionists and loyalists).

Since the mid-to-late 1990s, NI has found a quiet balance in that its future isn't quite decided but its current situation is a bit more fluid - all parties can share power in the NI government (when they get on).

Any referendum for anything would drastically tip this balance, and the danger is that the violence would resume - no one wants to chance this, so it's a stand off with the current state of affairs being the overall winner.


Posted 2021-01-14T21:50:15.560

Reputation: 3 448

27And by "violent" we don't mean "lots of shouting", we mean "blood in the streets". – Mark – 2021-01-15T02:09:19.187

Wouldn't be a solution to just remove the kingdom from the UK? And make it a republic instead of a monarchy that is something from the past? Just no longer make birthright something important and abolish this ancient rule of bloodshed. That way republicans are happy because they are now a republic, and unionists stay within the union and are hence happy. In this sense I feel the UK queen is personally responsible for all the deaths because she refuses to resign and hence as europe we need to take action and dare her for the court for crimes against humanity. – paul23 – 2021-01-15T15:12:17.417

10@paul23 No. The opposing identities are British vs Irish. There isn't even a single word for 'Independent Northern Irish', I expect (I don't know, not being from NI) that that outcome would be seen by both side as the worst possible outcome. – simon at rcl – 2021-01-15T17:04:16.490

15@paul23 The system of government is kinda tangental here. There are some people in the UK that want to see the monarchy replaced with a republic, but that's not what people mean in the NI context. 'Republican' here is shorthand for "people who want to see the reunificaiton of Northern Ireland and Ireland as a single state (governed as a republic)" rather than "People who want to replace the monarchy with a republic (and happen to live in Ireland)". – anotherdave – 2021-01-15T17:14:34.917

5@paul23 I am not someone who habitually leaps to the defence of the monarch, but suggesting that the Queen is "personally responsible for all the deaths" is the most ridiculous thing I have heard for many a long year. The Queen is about the only person capable of winning a warm reception on both sides of the Irish border. During her 2011 visit to Dublin, there were some minor scuffles between the Garda and hooligan youth - but in the main she was very well received. – WS2 – 2021-01-17T08:43:57.763


Simply because the path to a referendum is very different in Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Act 1998, a statute of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, provides that Northern Ireland will remain within the United Kingdom unless a majority of the people of Northern Ireland vote to form part of a united Ireland. It specifies that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland "shall exercise the power [to hold a referendum] 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". Such referenda may not take place within seven years of each other.

In other words those wanting a so-called Border Poll need only to see a clear majority in polling before the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is obliged to give them what they want. Thus most of their energy is focused on increasing support among the population, not on making demands of the UK government.

In Scotland there is no such law or requirement to hold a referendum under any circumstances, no matter how big the majority in favour of independence is. As such the SNP must first create a mandate for such a referendum, and then apply political and legal pressure to force the UK government to consent.


Posted 2021-01-14T21:50:15.560

Reputation: 16 552