The Constitution Unit is leading a Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland composed of academics from London, Dublin, Belfast, and the United States. The Working Group released its interim report in November and is now working on a final report. In this post, the Working Group’s Project Manager and Research Assistant Conor J. Kelly explores how the group gathered evidence, as well as the challenges of examining this issue during a pandemic, and in a divided society.
Purpose of the project
The Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland is examining how any future referendums on whether Northern Ireland should become part of a united Ireland or remain part of the UK would best be designed and conducted. Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is obliged to call such a vote if a majority for a united Ireland appears ‘likely’. If such a vote does happen, it will be vital that the process is designed and conducted well. The goal of the Working Group is to stimulate thinking on how this would be done.
Assembling an expert team
The first step was to assemble a diverse team of experts with insight on the legal, political, sociological, and historical elements of a question of this magnitude. These diverse perspectives created valuable awareness of both the possible and probable parameters of any future process of decision-making around the unification question, balancing both legal and political considerations. I feel that the ability to lay out legal realities alongside contextual analysis of the politics that might be at play is a major strength of the Working Group. As an early career researcher and a PhD student myself, working alongside such an esteemed group of academics has been an invaluable professional experience.
Researching existing literature and material
One of my main tasks has been to trawl through scholarly literature, reports, manifestos, and other policy documents in search of concrete proposals for the referendum process or the form of a united Ireland. Though this issue has in various forms dominated Irish (and often British) politics since the 19th century, surprisingly little has been written on different constitutional models and processes which might be undertaken. There has been more work in recent years, particularly by the Ireland’s Future and Constitutional Conversations groups, and in Justice Richard Humphreys’ book Beyond the Border. But despite these interventions, many of the issues which would need to be resolved were a referendum or a united Ireland ever to happen have scarcely been explored. There has been substantial commentary on a border poll in the media, but this is a fast-moving debate, without a detailed or agreed landing point.
Considering the perspectives of the various actors who would be involved in referendums on Irish unification is fascinating from a research standpoint. To capture the widest possible range of views, we adopted a four-pronged approach.
First, we sent a call for written evidence to nearly 200 individuals and organisations, and received a wide range of replies, with the academic community proving particularly responsive.
Second, we held numerous conversations to elicit nuanced perspectives on key questions. We assembled expert panels in Dublin and Belfast, including retired government officials, civil society representatives, journalists, politicians from Northern Ireland’s and Ireland’s major parties, academics, and others. We planned similar panels in London, but, amidst the deepening COVID-19 crisis, replaced them with interviews by video conference. The pandemic pushed all of the Working Group’s meetings and other activities online. Alongside the downsides of remote interaction, the shift online probably opened doors which otherwise would have been closed to us. In the final pages of our interim report, readers can see the wide range of experts who spoke with us, including former Irish Taoisigh (Prime Ministers) and former senior UK government ministers. In total we spoke with 63 individuals and organisations with relevant expertise.
Third, we conducted an online public consultation in the summer of 2020, engaging nearly 1,400 members of the public. Here we focused specifically on the need to hear the views, concerns, and hopes of people in Northern Ireland regarding a possible referendum on its constitutional future. Summary findings can be seen in Chapter 3 of our interim report.
Fourth and finally, we are now consulting again. Readers should be aware that so far the Working Group has only produced an interim version of its report, setting out provisional analysis and draft conclusions. The Group is very keen to receive feedback on all aspects of its work. We aim to publish a final version of the report, taking account of the feedback received, in spring 2021. Please send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org
Having been through this varied research process, I have a few thoughts which may be helpful for those interested in the constitutional debate or this area of academic inquiry. The first is that individuals and groups from the Irish nationalist community – including politicians, civic forums, and others – have been particularly keen to engage with us across the various strands of research. This is not necessarily surprising given the subject matter. As these responses have demonstrated, however, nationalism is very broadly constituted: the views we have heard cover a wide range of opinion on the shape of both a future referendum and a united Ireland. Many believe Brexit, the loss of unionism’s electoral majority, and changing demographics, are pointing to constitutional change in the coming years. Others fear that a rush towards holding a referendum without a clear majority would be dangerous and destabilising. There was broad (but not universal) agreement in this community that contingency planning should be taking place in Ireland for the potential of unity. There is also an awareness and concern that such preparation would be perceived negatively by the unionist community. As a result, how detailed or intense that preparation should be, and when the Irish government should take a proactive role, are matters on which people disagree.
As one might also expect, political unionism has been more wary of engaging with us. Many in that community see talking about the possibility of a referendum as in itself threatening to their political objectives. Nevertheless, we have held conversations wherever possible, to ensure that we hear and understand unionist perspectives and concerns. We heard a perception within unionism that a united Ireland is being presented as a pre-determined ‘destination’, and that talk of a referendum on Irish unity in the short or medium term is unwarranted given the state of public opinion. Unionism, like nationalism, is far from homogeneous. While some unionists have contacted us simply to outline their objections to any future unification referendum, others did want clarity on some of the issues our project deals with. The negative responses are as meaningful as the positive, giving important evidence on the state of opinion.
Both our public consultation and expert witness sessions also revealed the shared hopes and fears of people from different backgrounds. There is broad support for developing community cohesion and countering sectarian divisions. More soberingly, I was personally struck by warnings that there is a real potential for violence if the situation is handled insensitively. Several people have stressed the importance of developing processes of deliberation taking place over several years. These, they said, should enable broad conversation on the future of the island of Ireland and the UK, to provide a space for everyone to take part. It is also worth noting that there is a third, ‘other’ community in Northern Ireland which rejects the binary division. Were a referendum ever to take place, policy differences between the UK and a hypothetical united Ireland around education, pensions, and healthcare would inform how this group in particular would vote. These policy areas are pressing issues in Northern Ireland today and will continue to be so, regardless of its constitutional future.
A final key theme, raised throughout our evidence, is the importance of the British government in almost all aspects of this issue. The obligation to call a referendum lies with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, if it appears ‘likely’ that a majority would vote for Irish unification. Many of our witnesses have also stressed the UK’s role as an active agent in, or independent arbitrator of, negotiations before and after a referendum. The UK government perspective on these issues was an unanswered question for many research participants. There is a clear desire from across the various political traditions in Ireland and Northern Ireland for both governments to ‘re-engage’ constructively in Northern Irish politics.
The views expressed in this post are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland.
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About the author
Conor J Kelly joined the Constitution Unit in November 2019 as the Research Assistant and Project Manager for the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, working with Dr Alan Renwick. He is also a part-time ESRC-funded PhD student at Birkbeck College, University of London. His research there focuses on Northern Irish political parties and their attitudes towards European integration. You can follow him on Twitter, at @ConorKellyLDN