Referendums on Irish unification: How would they best be designed and conducted?

The interim report of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, published today, concludes that referendums on the question of Irish unification should be called only with a plan for the processes that would follow. In this post, the Chair of the Working Group, Alan Renwick, sets out some of the group’s key provisional findings. The group is seeking feedback on these, in advance of its final report next year.

The Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland was established last year to examine how any future referendums on whether Northern Ireland should stay in the United Kingdom or become part of a united Ireland would best be designed and conducted. The group, based at the Constitution Unit, comprises 12 experts from universities in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Great Britain, and the United States. It has no collective view on whether holding such referendums would be desirable or not, or what the outcome should be if referendums were held. 

The project continues the Unit’s long history of research into referendums, stretching back to the 1996 report of the Commission on the Conduct of Referendums, whose recommendations for new legislation helped pave the way for key reforms in 2000. More recent work includes the 2018 Independent Commission on Referendums and last year’s Doing Democracy Better report. We also have a track record of examining future constitutional possibilities—such as Scottish independence or the creation of an English parliament—without taking a view on their desirability.

Why the Working Group was established

We created the Working Group because referendums on the unification question might happen in the future, and what this would involve needs to be thought through. The Brexit process has shown the dangers that can arise if a referendum is called without proper planning. Repeating that in Northern Ireland’s sensitive context would be highly unwise. Yet no such plan exists. The 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement makes some key provisions, as we elaborate below. But it leaves many important points unspecified. We do not believe referendums to be imminent: the evidence is that the majority in Northern Ireland would currently support maintaining the Union. But opinion could evolve in either direction in the future. 

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Why we need an independent Electoral Commission

The UK’s guardian of public ethics is reviewing the role of the Electoral Commission in regulating election finance. The evidence submitted to the inquiry shows wide support for maintaining, and in some ways enhancing, the Commission’s functions. But the regulator’s position is also challenged from some quarters, and the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is currently conducting its own enquiry. Alan Renwick and Charlotte Kincaid argue that the debate raises important wider questions about the place of checks and balances in our system of democratic governance.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life – the body charged with monitoring ethical standards in public life in the UK – is conducting a review of electoral regulation. The terms of reference focus largely on the role of the Electoral Commission in regulating election finance. The first stage was a public call for evidence, and the responses were published last month. 

Grabbing some media headlines was a suggestion in the response from the Conservative Party that the Electoral Commission might be abolished, with its core functions transferred to other bodies. This was not the only option put forward in the submission. Indeed, the central proposal appeared rather to be that the Commission should continue to operate, but with a more restrictively defined remit. Nevertheless, the general tenor was striking. The submission said: ‘The Electoral Commission consistently lobbies for itself to be given more powers – this is not an argument for doing so. Rather, this is public choice theory in action: quangos seeking to expand their remit for their own sake.’

Following the same logic, however, that is a political party seeking to abolish or curtail the remit of the regulator of political parties. If the argument from public choice theory has any force against the Electoral Commission, it has the same force against the Conservative Party. Both the Commission and the Conservatives have interests at stake here. But both also have a wealth of relevant experience. Their arguments should be judged on their merits, with an eye to the possibility that they may be skewed by the organisations’ particular interests.

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Public consultation on unification referendums on the island of Ireland.

alan.jfif (1)conor_kelly_500x625.jpg_resized.jpgchk_headshot500x625.jpg (1)The Constitution Unit is leading a Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland. This week, it launches a public consultation, seeking views from people in Northern Ireland on the issues it is considering. In this post, Alan Renwick, Conor Kelly, and Charlotte Kincaid outline the purposes of the group’s work and the kinds of questions that it is asking.

Readers can access the consultation survey by clicking here.

The Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland is examining how any future referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future would best be run. Such a referendum – sometimes known as a ‘border poll’ – would decide (alongside a parallel process in the Republic of Ireland) whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or become part of a united Ireland.

A referendum like this could occur in the future. Under the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland may call a poll at any time. He or she would be required to do so if at any time it appeared likely that a majority of those voting would back a united Ireland. Most of the evidence suggests that this is some way off. But there are also signs that the majority in favour of the existing Union may have weakened, and that trend may continue. 

Yet, despite the possibility of a referendum, almost no thinking has been done about what the process would involve. The Working Group is seeking to fill that important gap. It takes no view on whether a referendum should happen or what the outcome of such a vote should be. But we think that planning for a referendum is important. Some people are eager for a vote in the coming years and will therefore no doubt be keen to discuss it. Others, we realise, view the prospect with great trepidation, and may not wish to give the idea undue prominence. We fully respect that. But we hope that even these people will see the value of planning ahead, just in case. Holding a vote without thinking through the process carefully in advance could be very destabilising, to the detriment of people across Northern Ireland.  Continue reading