The Constitution Unit has today announced the creation of a new Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland. In this post, Alan Renwick and Alan Whysall explain why the group is needed, what issues it will examine and how it will work.
The Constitution Unit has today announced that, with generous funding from the British Academy’s Humanities and Social Sciences Tackling the UK’s International Challenges programme, it is creating a new Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland. Comprising 13 political scientists, lawyers, sociologists, and historians based in Belfast, Dublin and London, this group will work over the coming year to examine the processes before, during and after any future referendums on the question of Irish unity – beginning with what is often known as a ‘border poll’ in Northern Ireland. It is an expert group: it will take no view on the desirability in principle of referendums, nor on any of the outcomes that may follow. In this post, we set out why such an exercise is needed, what questions the group is likely to explore, and what form the project will take.
Why the Working Group is needed
A deep investigation into unification referendums on the island of Ireland is needed for three interlinked reasons. First, such referendum might actually happen, potentially very soon. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 – which enshrines the key elements of the Good Friday Agreement in UK law – says that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland ‘shall’ call such a poll ‘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’. While opinion polls continue to indicate that there is no majority for a united Ireland at present, the trend is towards greater support for that proposition, and some recent polls have suggested that a hard Brexit would shift opinion further. It is thus possible that the condition for triggering a referendum will be met in the near future.
Second, though the UK legislation requires a referendum in some circumstances, it offers little detail on how the process would be conducted. The UK’s general rules on referendums would apply. In the South even less provision is made: it is clear from the Good Friday Agreement that one or more referendums will be needed, but there is little guidance beyond that. So, as we elaborate below, many key matters remain unspecified. Indeed, almost no detailed thinking has happened, at least in public, on what form any unification referendum might take or what processes would precede or follow it, both north and south of the border. The governments in both London and Dublin, keen to dampen down talk of a referendum in the short term, will be unlikely to contribute to discussion of these subjects themselves, making an independent investigation all the more important.
Third, thinking through the best way to conduct such a referendum is vital. Any referendum should be designed with great care – we have seen from Brexit the dangers of an ill-designed process that has left parliament feeling bound to implement an imprecise instruction from the electorate that many voters on the losing side view as illegitimate. The risks are all the greater in Northern Ireland, where a badly structured process has the potential to stoke civil unrest. Detailed thinking is therefore needed about how any referendum might be triggered and what procedures might subsequently be followed.
Many of the questions that will be explored by the Working Group were set out in a background report written earlier this year by Alan Whysall, and previously summarised on this blog. They cover referendums both north and south of the border and processes before, during, and after the vote itself. They include:
- How would any border poll be triggered? The legislation requires such a referendum if it appears that a majority in Northern Ireland might favour a united Ireland. But what objective evidence should be used to gauge whether this condition is met? What activity might take place in the run-up, and over what period?
- On what basis should a referendum be held in the South? Would there need as a matter of law and practicality to be both pre-negotiation and post-negotiation referendums there? And if so, is it feasible to have a post-negotiation poll in the South but not in the North?
- What options for future governance in Ireland and Northern Ireland could be considered if there were votes in favour of Irish unity, and what implications would these have for the nature of the decision-making process? Who should make such decisions about the process, and on what basis?
- How and where in the process should citizens be engaged in discussions about the options? Since the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated and enshrined in law, Ireland has developed a practice of holding citizens’ assemblies before contested constitutional changes, most notably in relation to same-sex marriage and abortion. Might citizens’ assemblies be employed in relation to the unification question as well? If so, what would their remit be and how would this be determined? How might any such deliberative processes north and south of the border relate to each other?
- How should the campaigns during the referendums be regulated? In Northern Ireland, beyond the UK-wide provisions set out in the Political Parties, Elections, and Referendums Act 2000 (and any updates that may be made to it), what provisions would be made to ensure that voters could make an informed choice free from unfair campaign practices? And what rules should apply in the South? How should the ballot papers be designed?
- What should be the qualifications for voting in border polls, North and South?
This list is very far from being exhaustive, and we expect that further questions will emerge over the course of the project.
What we will do
The Working Group is designed to pool the expertise of leading scholars based in Belfast, Dublin, and London. Its members, who are listed on the project’s webpage, range across law, political science, sociology, and history, with particular research specialisms focusing on the border itself, British–Irish relations, public opinion, constitutional law, unionist and nationalist thought, peace processes, and the conduct of referendums. The members of the group will gather for six meetings in the three capital cities over the course of the coming year, to share insights and work up proposals.
The project is also designed to foster wider discussion of these issues among policy-makers, campaigners, and the broader public. To that end, we will hold public seminars in the three capital cities in the early months of 2020 to seek feedback on the questions that the group is asking and the options it is considering. We are currently also seeking additional funding that would allow wider consultations to take place. Full details of all these seminars and possible further processes will be announced on the project’s webpage in due course.
The project’s primary output will be a report setting out options and recommendations, which we expect to publish in autumn 2020. We hope this will serve as a basis for further public discussion and ultimately for policy-making by the governments.
From its earliest years, the Constitution Unit has conducted many projects examining the form that a given policy innovation might take without forming a view on whether that innovation should actually happen. Such an approach characterises, for example, our recent projects on options for an English parliament and the mechanics of a further referendum on Brexit. The Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland belongs to the same category.
The project’s purpose is not to argue for a referendum or for any particular outcome in a referendum. Rather, it acknowledges that a decision about whether to hold a referendum might need to be made in the coming years and, given that, the options need to have been identified and thought through in advance. We look forward to keeping readers of this blog informed from time to time as the project develops.
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About the authors
Dr Alan Renwick is Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit and project leader for the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland.
Alan Whysall is a former civil servant and now an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Unit, specialising on Northern Ireland’s politics. He is a member of the Working Group.