The Unit is holding a public event on Wednesday 9 June to launch the final report of its Working Group on Irish Unification Referendums, a technical study of the process by which the question of a united Ireland should be discussed and decided. Alan Whysall, Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Unit and a member of the group, considers why readers of this blog based in Great Britain should be interested in the group’s work.
As recent polling shows, there is no strongly felt wish in the rest of the UK that Northern Ireland should remain within it.
But the implications of unity should be a concern. Referendums on it may in some circumstances not be far from being triggered.
In fact, as is brought out by the report, the journey to unity is by no means inevitable; but if it is embarked on, it is liable to be long and difficult. It may end in a peaceful accommodation – or, potentially, in renewed conflict and division.
The ramifications of that would inevitably entangle Great Britain.
And much – including whether opinion moves further in favour of unity at all – depends on handling by governments. The British and Irish governments have traditionally been the motor of advance and the coordinators of rescue missions in Northern Ireland politics.
But this requires trust in the governments, and partnership between them. The Irish government is always mistrusted by many unionists. Polling suggests that the present British government is mistrusted by almost every shade of political opinion in Northern Ireland. And relations between the two governments are probably at their worst for 30 years.
Brexit, and the way it has been pursued, have heightened tensions and polarised political discourse. And it has brought unity back onto the political agenda: five years ago, few thought that it was feasible in this generation, or probably the next.
What might a unification referendum process look like?
The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement has been the basis on which Northern Ireland has made the transition from conflict to peace. Though its institutions have sometimes stumbled, the net benefits have been enormous.
It sets out the principle that there must be unity if, and only if, there is majority consent both North and South. The process must unfold ‘without external impediment’ – the rest of the UK has no say in the decision. It also indicates how the process begins: the Northern Ireland Secretary is under a legal duty to call a referendum in Northern Ireland, if he thinks a majority there is likely to favour unity.
But the Agreement says very little about the steps that follow, and still less about what a united Ireland would look like. The consent principle had come to be widely accepted by 1998; but arrangements for unity were not discussed in the negotiations that resulted in the Agreement, participants believing they would not arise for decades, if at all. So a great deal remains to be considered.
The first key question is the basis on which the Secretary of State should decide a vote for unity is likely, thus triggering a poll. Opinion polls of various sorts, election results, and votes in the Northern Ireland Assembly are all indicators of some value, but all, as our report discusses, highly imperfect. It is clear, though, that there is not at present a majority for unity, nor is one imminent.
In all these matters it is essential that the Secretary of State’s decisions command trust, or supporters of unity will see the British government reneging on the keystone principle of the 1998 settlement. That would happen if he appeared to be refusing a poll out of concern for possible Scottish implications. The cases are quite different: that of Northern Ireland is governed by an international agreement reflected in UK statute.
The UK’s international reputation – including in the US, where interest in Northern Ireland has revived – would also be at stake.
But what process would follow a vote for unity? This is intensely difficult, because there is a tension at the heart of the Agreement. It provides for simple majority consent to unity in both parts of the island – and history meant there would have been no Agreement if a higher threshold had been demanded. But it is otherwise heavily imbued with the principles of consensus and accommodation between the unionist and nationalist traditions, and specifically, that stable government requires their consent and involvement. In particular, it would be vital that every effort be made to secure unionist involvement in and acceptance of the design of a united Ireland.
The report considers various configurations of referendums and negotiations to address this conundrum, but we acknowledge that all are imperfect and involve serious risk. What is clear is that keeping the process on the road would require the most sensitive handling by the British and Irish governments.
A united Ireland could take many forms
As to what a united Irish state would look like, our report lists some of the numerous and difficult questions to be answered – starting with whether it would be a purely unitary state, or retain some Northern Ireland structures within it.
There is a growing debate in Northern Ireland on these issues, but usually at a high level of generality. Many need expert analysis that is currently absent. Our report is essentially an agenda for a more informed discussion. That discussion is largely one for people in Ireland.
But unity would also pose important questions for Britain. For example, would it retain a role in Northern Ireland affairs similar to that the Irish government has at present? Would it continue some fiscal transfers for a transitional period, given the yawning Northern Ireland public expenditure deficit?
London must take a constructive approach
And there are pressing issues for London in the here and now. The political institutions in Belfast established by the Agreement are fragile, and further weakened by the increasingly fractured debate about the Northern Ireland Protocol – which in recent weeks has contributed to the departure of the leaders of the two principal unionist parties. If the institutions fall over, they will be very difficult to revive.
How those issues are dealt with will have longer-term implications.
Unionism no longer commands a majority in Northern Ireland. But nor does nationalism. The swing segment of opinion in Northern Ireland as regards unity is the growing ‘neither of the above’ middle ground. Polling suggests that it is volatile. Drum-banging about the Union (or the failings of Brussels) is likely to be counter-productive with this constituency, which will look for pragmatic solutions to practical problems.
So a majority for unity is possible, though by no means certain at any point. The difficult questions in our report may become live ones.
Northern Ireland once again requires political focus and attention in London, as it has had in the past. Much may otherwise go awry, with far-reaching and disruptive consequences.
The Working Group will be launching its report at an online event on Wednesday 9 June, which will be streamed live and is open to all. You can access the report, a summary blog and more information about the Working Group on its project page.
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.
About the author
Alan Whysall is a former civil servant in the Northern Ireland Office and now an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Unit, specialising in politics in Northern Ireland. He is a member of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland.