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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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

Irish unification: processes and considerations

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Earlier this year, the International Association of Constitutional Law published a blog symposium on Irish Unification: Processes and Considerations, convened by Professor Oran Doyle. Here, Professor Doyle summarises the  contributions to the symposium. 

The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (GFA)—the agreement between the parties in Northern Ireland and the related international treaty between the British and Irish governments that was central to the peace settlement in 1998—built a new model of power-sharing politics on the foundation of a territorial compromise. On the one hand, Ireland and Irish nationalists accepted the legitimacy of Northern Ireland’s status as a component part of the United Kingdom. They thereby relinquished a territorial claim to the whole island of Ireland that had been advanced in different ways since independence and partition of the island of Ireland in 1921-22. On the other hand, the United Kingdom and unionists accepted that Northern Ireland would only remain part of the United Kingdom for as long as a majority of people in Northern Ireland so wished it. They thereby relinquished the right of the United Kingdom to preserve its own territorial boundaries.

In 1998, Irish unification seemed a distant prospect. The priority for most Irish nationalists—and certainly for all Irish governments—was to make the new political arrangements work, not to advocate for a united Ireland. But demographic change was slowly producing an electorate more open to unification, and Brexit has now dramatically increased the attractiveness of a united Ireland replete with EU membership. As a result, although opinions on the likelihood of a united Ireland diverge widely, the territorial compromise of 1998 is under pressure. Continue reading

The Secretary of State’s power to call a border poll in Northern Ireland: why British-Irish institutional cooperation is essential

Should there be a referendum on the issue of Irish unification, the Irish government would be expected to play a central role. Etain Tannam argues that Brexit created new tensions in British–Irish relations and has highlighted the need to have firm institutional cooperation between both governments before any referendum is called. As Irish unification would alter greatly the Irish state and the Irish electorate would have to approve of unification by referendum vote, the Irish government’s role is highly significant, even though it has no formal powers in this area in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Moreover, the sensitivity of the unification issue and the need to avoid increasing the sectarian divide imply that longer term management by both governments and joint framing of the issue is required.

The Brexit referendum in 2016 almost immediately reignited the issue of Irish unification, given that a majority of the population in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, including the vast majority of cultural Catholics. The unification issue has surfaced periodically since 2016, though with the exception of Sinn Féin, Irish political parties do not wish to place it on their agendas given its sensitivity. It is clear however that combined with demographic changes in Northern Ireland and the impact of Brexit on support for Scottish independence, there is far more informal discussion of Irish unification than in previous decades. Only the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has the statutory power to call a referendum on Irish unification, if they perceive there to be evidence of majority support in Northern Ireland for unification. However, in practice, given the fundamental implications for the Irish state and given Irish governments’ role in the peace process and in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, the Irish government would be expected to play a central role.

There are many reasons why the Irish government’s role would be crucial. Unification would have complex and wide-ranging impacts on Ireland, necessitating an Irish input into the timing of a referendum on unification. Many referendums could be required to amend the Constitution, dealing with a range of issues, including federalisation of the state and of protection for unionist identity in a new state.  Continue reading

Northern Ireland and a border poll: hard truths

Alan_Rialto2 (1)The Brexit issue continues to fuel speculation about the prospects of Irish unity following a border poll. Here Alan Whysall, Senior Honorary Research Associate at the Constitution Unit, author of the Unit’s paper on the subject published in March, and a member of the working group bringing in colleagues from Belfast and Dublin that will look further at the implications of a poll, warns that there are serious dangers looming here for both parts of Ireland – as well as the British government and the wider UK.

The potential breakup of the UK is now spoken about more often than it has perhaps been since the 1920s, fed by the heated politics of Brexit and by evolutions in opinion revealed in polling in Northern Ireland (and Scotland). Some polling in England suggests a willingness to contemplate this, especially if it is the price of Brexit. The subject is sometimes raised rather matter-of-factly in discussion in Great Britain, on an apparent assumption that quick and clean breaks are possible. 

In the case of Ireland, at least, this is not so. There are a number of hard realities meaning that any process of Irish unity is likely to be drawn out, and at all stages capable of tipping over into heightened tensions, instability and conflict. And hence a serious preoccupation for the UK, as well as for Ireland. The situation requires handling with extreme care and sensitivity, and not least from London. But its conduct in the last few weeks has all tended to exacerbate the situation.

This blog sets out some of the realities and pitfalls – and why the latter are at present becoming more likely and more serious.

Northern Ireland has a right to leave the UK on the basis of the majority vote

Northern Ireland differs from other parts of the UK in that there is a principle already established in political agreements and in international law that it should leave the UK and become part of a United Ireland in certain circumstances – if a majority of its inhabitants voting in a poll, and the majority also in the rest of Ireland, is in favour. This is a cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement, and embodied also the parallel Treaty between the UK and Ireland.

And there is a mechanism to bring the principle to life: the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, with parliamentary approval, must call a referendum (usually called in Northern Ireland a ‘border poll’) at any time it seems likely that a majority would favour Irish unity. 

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Why Northern Ireland can’t afford a ‘do or die’ Brexit

nick.wright.jpgBoris Johnson is demanding that the Withdrawal Agreement is scrapped and renegotiated, and is insisting that he won’t meet EU leaders until they agree to this. The major source of contention is the backstop, which guarantees an open border on the island of Ireland post-Brexit, but ties the UK to the EU’s Customs Union. In a new Brexit Insights paper, Nicholas Wright assesses the politics of the backstop and ‘no deal’, and what all this means for Northern Ireland. 

During his leadership campaign, Prime Minister Boris Johnson engaged in an increasingly shrill rhetorical arms race with his rival, Jeremy Hunt, over who will be toughest with the EU in delivering Brexit. In particular, his ire was focused on the hated ‘Irish backstop’ which has come to symbolise all that Brexiters loathe about the Withdrawal Agreement. Indeed, Mr Johnson has promised to remove this element of the deal, declaring that if the EU will not renegotiate, then the UK will leave on 31 October, ‘deal or no deal’, suggesting that the costs of exiting in such circumstances will be ‘vanishingly inexpensive if you prepare’. Such claims fly in the face of reality and nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in Northern Ireland. Indeed, it is here that the consequences of Brexit and the trade-offs implicit in its delivery are most starkly revealed.

Since the beginning of the Brexit process, the UK government has been trying to reconcile the ‘Irish Trilemma’: UK departure from the EU’s single market and customs union; an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic; and no new trade or regulatory barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. You can have any two, but a combination of all three is impossible. This matters because the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and all that has resulted from it were predicated on the open and invisible border and shared regulatory space that come with EU membership. These have underpinned efforts in Northern Ireland to chart a new pathway, not least by reducing the prominence and difficulty of complex questions around identity. Doing so has not been easy, something demonstrated by the collapse of power-sharing and suspension of the Assembly in Stormont. The prospect of changes to border arrangements – and particularly anything necessitating the re-establishment of any border infrastructure – therefore risks further undermining a fragile equilibrium that reflects Northern Ireland’s ‘relative peace but minimum reconciliation’. Continue reading

Is Tory unionism the greatest obstacle to Brexit?

image_normalAs the Brexit process continues, the Conservative Party is finding it hard to reconcile its desire to leave the EU with its longstanding commitment to maintaining the territorial and political union of the United Kingdom. Michael Kenny argues that, far from introducing a destabilising element to an otherwise sound constitutional set-up, Brexit has instead amplified and accelerated the debate about the UK’s territorial constitution.

‘I didn’t know it would break the United Kingdom’. This regretful rumination from columnist Peter Oborne – in a fascinating interview given in the wake of the recanting of his support for Brexit – touches on one of the key developments in the Brexit story. This is the gathering realisation in some Conservative circles that leaving the EU may well be incompatible with one of the foundational values of the Conservative party – the preservation of the integrity of the United Kingdom.

The painful discovery that these two goals are very hard – and maybe impossible – to reconcile is one of the great under-estimated political ironies of Brexit. For it has been those calling for the UK’s departure from the EU who have talked most confidently and directly about the distinctive character of Britain’s model of parliamentary sovereignty and the territorially differentiated unity expressed in in its constitutional arrangements. And whilst anxieties about whether Brexit might reignite the independence cause in Scotland were aired in the campaign leading up to the 2016 referendum, for the most part these remained at its margins.

But Prime Minister Theresa May has sounded a more anxious note ever since she entered office in July 2016. She has repeatedly – and a little mechanically – invoked the importance to her own politics of ‘our precious union’, a mantra that betrays a telling worry about the implications of a vote which accentuates a growing sense of political differences across the different nations and peoples contained with it, and also signals the salience in her own mind of the question of what implementing Brexit means for the domestic union. Continue reading

A Northern Ireland border poll

alan_rialto2-1The prospect of a vote in Northern Ireland on Irish unity – a border poll, as it is often called – is more and more discussed. The Constitution Unit has today published a short report by Alan Whysall, Senior Honorary Research Associate of the Unit, which aims to set out the key issues, and stimulate discussion. Below, he outlines the main themes of the report.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must by law call a poll if it appears likely that a majority of the people of Northern Ireland would vote for Irish unity. This is a key part of the mechanism by which the question of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status was resolved in the Good Friday Agreement. A poll in the Republic of Ireland (the South) would also need to be held.

Members of the UK government have recently been talking about this possibility, in pointing up the dangers of a no-deal Brexit. There is no real evidence of a majority at present for Irish unity, indeed no inevitability that it will be found in the future. But from a range of opinion polling results it is clear that nationalism has a spring in its step, and opinion has become more volatile. There is some evidence in the polling that Brexit would indeed tip the scales narrowly to unity. If politics becomes especially brittle, such a change could occur in short order.

If there are votes for unity – both North and South – the consequence according to the Agreement is the negotiation of proposals for a united Ireland – taking in, potentially, almost half the Northern Ireland population who opposed such a move.

The provision in law and the Agreement regarding a border poll is stark and minimal. There was no opportunity in the negotiations in 1998 to develop it further: unity then was a distant prospect. There are hence serious gaps, and ambiguities, in the framework. Continue reading

Holding a border poll in Northern Ireland: when does it need to happen and what questions need to be answered?

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The prospect of a poll in Northern Ireland about Irish unification, provided for by the Good Friday Agreement and often termed a ‘border poll’, is now widely discussed. But the provisions and wider implications of the law and the Agreement are little explored. The Constitution Unit is considering a project to examine this, and Alan Whysall here gives an overview of the key questions.

Support for a united Ireland appears to be rising. There is little to suggest a majority for unity now, but in the context of Brexit provoking serious strains it might arise. This blog is mainly about process. But the real world risks are high. An early poll, particularly if it takes place in a political atmosphere that is strained following a hard Brexit, could seriously destabilise both parts of Ireland, and put at risk the political gains of recent decades.

Current outlook on border polls

Northern Ireland Unionists have largely ignored or dismissed the prospect of a poll. But the former First Minister Peter Robinson last year urged unionism to prepare.

Nationalists, while looking forward to a poll, have often been vague as to when this might happen. Sinn Féin now appears to favour one immediately after a no deal Brexit. The SDLP propose there should first be a forum to establish the shape of a united Ireland.

The Irish government has been hesitant. The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has suggested that raising the prospect now is disruptive and destructive, and has in the past questioned the wisdom of Irish unity founded on a 50% plus one vote in Northern Ireland.

The UK government has consistently rejected ideas of any early poll. But during recent debate on a no deal Brexit, leaks have emerged of its apparent fears that such an outcome would trigger a poll, dismissed by unionists as ‘Project Fear’.

Recent surveys on Northern Ireland appear to show a marked trend towards a united Ireland. None yet suggests an overall majority, but polling last September suggested 52% of people there would vote in favour in the event of Brexit. However different surveys produce sharply different results and the accuracy of some polling methodologies is questioned. Indeed opinion polling in Northern Ireland has for long thrown up particular problems. Continue reading

Reforming referendums: how can their use and conduct be improved?

jess.sargeant.resizedalan_renwick_webThis week’s turbulent political events represent the fallout from a referendum where the consequences of a ‘change vote’ were unclear. This is just one of many concerns raised about recent UK referendums. To reflect on such problems and consider possible solutions, the Constitution Unit established the Independent Commission on Referendums. Here Jess Sargeant and Alan Renwick summarise the Commission’s conclusions and recommendations.

The Independent Commission on Referendums has published its final report today. This sets out almost 70 conclusions and recommendations, all agreed unanimously by the 12 distinguished Commissioners, who span the major divides in recent referendums. The report is the product of eight months of discussion and deliberation amongst the Commissioners, backed by comprehensive Constitution Unit research into referendums in the UK and other democracies. The Commission has also consulted widely with experts and the public, including seminars in each of the four constituent countries of the UK. We hope that, like the work of the Constitution Unit’s previous commission on referendums, this report will set the agenda for debate about the future use and conduct of referendums. 

Background

The use of referendums internationally has increased dramatically over the past three decades. This has been driven partly by changing public expectations of democracy: deference has declined and public desire for input in decision-making has grown. The UK experience has mirrored this trend. Following the first non-local referendum in 1973, there were three further such polls in the 1970s. A further nine non-local referendums have been held since the late 1990s – two of which were UK-wide.

Unlike many countries, the UK has no formal rules regarding when or on what a referendum should happen. As explored in an earlier blogpost, decisions to hold such votes have been driven by a mixture of principle and pragmatism. Nonetheless, conventions have emerged for holding referendums on fundamental questions to do with devolution and the European Union; in some cases, these conventions have even been codified in law. Referendums provide a mechanism for entrenchment in the absence of a codified constitution: decisions explicitly endorsed by the electorate are hard to reverse without further reference to the people.

The role of referendums in democracy

Referendums can enhance democracy: they can answer fundamental questions about who ‘the people’ are, strengthen the legitimacy of major decisions, and allow the public a direct say on major issues.

But referendums can also in some ways inhibit democracy. Voting is central to democracy, but so are processes such as deliberation, compromise and scrutiny. Binary referendum campaigns don’t necessarily create space for these: rather, they can encourage polarisation and division. Badly designed referendum processes can also risk undermining the institutions of representative democracy, which are essential for democratic governance across the board. There are also some topics, such as those affecting minority rights, where using such a majoritarian device may be inappropriate.

Thus, the Commission recommends that referendums be used with caution. Engaging the public in policy-making processes is essential, but there are often better ways of doing so. Continue reading