What do people in Northern Ireland think of unification referendums?

A new article published in Irish Political Studies this week presents the findings of a consultation on public attitudes towards referendums on Irish unification. In this post, the article’s authors, Alan Renwick, Nadia Dobrianska, Conor J. Kelly, and Charlotte Kincaid, summarise the findings and explore their implications for when the processes around such referendums would best be designed.

Through the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, the Constitution Unit has recently examined how any possible future referendums on Irish unification might best be designed and conducted. The Unit is neither for nor against holding such referendums; nor does it have a view on the constitutional question itself. But such votes might happen in the future (they are legally required in certain circumstances) and, if they happen, it will be better if their design has been thought through in advance. That was the task taken on by the Working Group. One part of the research undertaken for the group was a consultation exploring public views on such referendums. The full results of the consultation have now been published in Irish Political Studies.

The design of the consultation

Opinion polls in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland often ask how respondents would vote in a referendum on the unification question. Some also enquire about whether people support holding a referendum. Qualitative research has yielded insights too. But less work has dug into people’s thoughts on how any such vote should be conducted. Yet public views on these issues matter. Choices about the design of a referendum need to be viewed as legitimate. They are less likely to achieve that if they cut across existing expectations. Hence the Working Group’s desire to find out what people thought.

The consultation took place online in the summer of 2021. Our questionnaire first explored people’s broad feeling by asking about respondents’ hopes and fears relating to a referendum. Then we asked what views (if any) they had on a range of aspects of the design of a referendum process, including how a referendum would be called, the timing and sequencing of votes north and south, how plans for a united Ireland and perhaps proposals for reforms in the UK would be worked out, and how the vote and the campaign would be structured and regulated. The consultation was open to anyone who wished to take part, and we publicised it through radio, newspapers, social media, and civil society organisations.

The choice of an open consultation was motivated by the Working Group’s desire to enable anyone who wanted to express their views to do so. It has the downside that the responses cannot be representative. But there is value in seeing who wants to talk about this issue and what their views are. And there were sufficient responses from all political identities – nationalist, unionist, and neither – for meaningful inferences to be made in relation to each.

Who responded

There were 1,377 responses in total. Of these, 803 were from people saying they lived in Northern Ireland, and it is these that we have focused on. In terms of political identity, 62% of respondents described themselves as nationalists, 18% as unionists, and 19% as neither nationalist nor unionist. This skew towards nationalists clearly – and unsurprisingly – illustrates who wants to engage with the unification question.

Given the nature of the sample, our article reports the findings within each identity, but does not seek to aggregate across them. All of the questions were open-ended. We categorised the responses so that we could identify themes in what people said.

People’s hopes and fears

We asked about respondents’ hopes and fears concerning a referendum. Many of the replies focused on hopes and fears in relation to unification more generally, rather than the referendum process itself. The commonest hope – expressed by 25% of nationalist respondents and 13% of those identifying as neither nationalist nor unionist, but by very few unionists – was for better community cohesion in a united Ireland. Smaller numbers also voiced hopes that unification would aid the economy, and some mentioned rejoining the EU. On the other hand, many unionists expressed concerns or fears about the future of unionists and unionist identity in a united Ireland (19%) or about economic downturn (15%).

Turning to the referendum process rather than its outcome, no particular hopes were mentioned by many respondents. That may in itself be instructive: supporters of unification focused on the outcome but did not often offer positive reflections on the process for getting there. By contrast, many respondents across all identities shared concerns and fears, particularly that a referendum would be divisive, and that it could lead to violence. One nationalist said: ‘I fear that some parties will use the referendum campaign to stoke fear, division and sectarianism in order to influence the electorate.’ Across the survey as a whole, fears of violence were raised by 19% of nationalists, 31% of unionists and 35% of respondents who identified as neither. To address such concerns, many respondents called for cross-community engagement or said there should be a clear roadmap for unification before a referendum. Many unionists said outright that there should be no referendum.

Views on the design of a referendum process

The responses indicated that, even among people who chose to reply to a consultation on the subject, few had formed firm views on the design of a referendum process. Many people’s thinking was framed by past referendum experiences: the 2016 Brexit referendum was often mentioned, typically as an example of what not to follow; the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 was also frequently cited, more often to illustrate what respondents saw as good practice.

The proportions of respondents who did mention particular aspects of referendum design are shown in the table below. The commonest concerned the evidence that should be used in deciding whether to call a referendum. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 requires the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to call a vote if it appears likely to them that a majority would vote for unification; but it does not say how this should be gauged. Most of those from each identity who shared their views on this matter supported the use of election results as evidence. Opinion polls were also widely mentioned. Meanwhile, regarding the sequencing of referendums in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, most who expressed a view thought the votes should be held simultaneously.

Proportion of all respondents mentioning particular aspects of the process

Evidence for deciding whether to call a referendum38%14%32%
Sequence of referendums28%8%17%
Use of citizens’ assemblies during process28%<4%17%
Information and misinformation27%10%23%
Referendum franchise18%10%13%
Referendum threshold13%10%12%
Intergovernmental cooperation during process8%6%12%

Many respondents were concerned that voters should be able to make an informed choice – in contrast, as many saw it, to what happened in relation to Brexit. There were thus many calls, primarily from nationalists, for a process to develop plans for a united Ireland, which most often centred on a citizens’ assembly. Many respondents across communities argued that impartial information should be provided and that misinformation should be tackled during a referendum campaign.

Features of the vote itself – such as the franchise and the referendum threshold – were also mentioned, though less often than the features of the overall process and campaign. Regarding the franchise, the commonest theme – mentioned particularly by nationalists and respondents who identified as neither nationalist nor unionist, but also by small numbers of unionists—was that the voting age should be lowered to 16. It is striking that many respondents mentioned the referendum threshold, as we did not specifically ask about it: it is one of the few referendum features that is specified in the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Nationalists tended to favour a simple majority threshold (as the Agreement envisages). But most unionists and those who identified as neither nationalist nor unionist, as well as small numbers of nationalists, advocated a supermajority.


Responses to an open consultation always need to be treated with caution, given the unrepresentative sample. But they do provide a snapshot of what those who are engaged on the issue want to say. We gain a rich sense of people’s thinking by reading their own words, so our article includes many quotations.

We see from the results that, unsurprisingly, nationalists are more inclined to engage on the issue of unification referendums than are unionists or those identifying as neither nationalist nor unionist. More strikingly, even among nationalists, there are more fears than hopes relating to the referendum process, whereas hopes concentrate on the end goal of unification. Across all identities, most people—even most respondents to this consultation—do not really have detailed thoughts about the process as yet, beyond seeing it as a route to an outcome that they either want or hope to avoid. When prompted, significant numbers did voice views on a range of aspects of referendum design. But there were few issues on which clear views were consistently held.

In particular, there were few aspects of referendum design where marked divergences of opinion across the three political identities were apparent. In fact, we observed only three issues on which nascent divergences of that kind might be emerging: the referendum franchise; the referendum threshold; and whether it would be desirable to hold a citizens’ assembly in relation to unification. That is a source for optimism: it suggests that entrenched or polarised views on how any referendum should be conducted have not yet developed.

If that is correct, then a window of opportunity may exist for settling the format of any future referendum before potentially conflicting expectations have crystallised. On the other hand, there is a quandary here: the rules of the game are best agreed when the game is not being played; but discussing the rules sets the game running. The British and Irish governments are unlikely to want to touch the issue. But there is space for actors who would have no direct role in any future referendum, such as neutral academics and civic organisations, to develop proposals.

For a more detailed discussion of the issues raised in this blogpost, read the authors’ article in Irish Political Studies, entitled Public attitudes to referendums on Irish unification in Northern Ireland: evidence from an online consultation.

About the authors

Professor Alan Renwick is Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit and was Chair of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland.

Nadia Dobrianska is a PhD student at University College London and a former research volunteer at the Constitution Unit.

Conor J Kelly was the Working Group’s Research Assistant.

Charlotte Kincaid was Impact and Public Engagement Officer for the Working Group, leading its communications and engagement work.

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