Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland: Final Report

The final report of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland is published today. In this post, Alan Renwick, the Working Group’s Chair, outlines what the Group has sought to achieve, explains how it has pursued these goals, and highlights some of the core findings. He points out that, while there is no certainty that a referendum will happen any time soon, policy-makers need to be aware of the decisions that might have to be made.

The Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland was established approaching two years ago to examine how any future referendums on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status would best be designed and conducted. Based at the Constitution Unit, the Group comprises 12 experts in politics, law, history and sociology, from universities in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Great Britain and the United States. Since coming together, we have pooled our expertise – meeting at first face-to-face and later online – and listened to as many voices as we could, including politicians, former officials, journalists, community organisers, academics, and members of the general public. We have held dozens of in-depth conversations and received numerous written submissions. Our public consultation last summer attracted 1377 responses, which we have carefully analysed. Last November, we published an interim report setting out our draft findings. Through four public seminars, direct correspondence, and monitoring of traditional and social media, we have logged over 300 responses to it. Our final report takes account of all of that feedback.

The Working Group’s starting point

A crucial feature underpinning all of this work has been our starting point. The Group has no collective view on whether it would be desirable for referendums on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future to take place, or what the outcome should be if they do happen. Speaking personally, my interest in this subject stems from my broader work on how to conduct referendums well, including the Independent Commission on Referendums, which reported in 2018, and the 2019 Doing Democracy Better report, co-authored with Michela Palese. I have no position on where Northern Ireland’s future should lie.

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Northern Ireland on the brink, again: the responsibility of London

As political tensions rise and riots erupt, or are provoked, on the streets of Belfast, the suggestion is now widely heard that the Northern Ireland institutions may again collapse before long. But London appears at present to have a limited grip of the Northern Ireland situation, suggests Alan Whysall, and if it does not change its approach markedly, it – and others – may face great grief soon.

Lessons of history

London governments were hands off in Northern Ireland until the late 1960s. Meanwhile conditions developed there that provoked protest, which was then hijacked by terrorism. Over several decades they painfully learned again about Ireland, the need to give its affairs at times a degree of priority, and the importance of working with Dublin. That approach led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and an intensive cooperative effort between the governments to implement it and keep it on the road.

Since 2016, matters have changed. In settling the UK’s approach to Brexit, it has generally been regarded as a side issue, to be resolved once the grand lines of the withdrawal plan were settled. The May government, under much pressure from Brussels, Belfast and Dublin, eventually recognised that the architecture of Brexit must accommodate Northern Ireland concerns. In 2019, however, policy shifted from the May backstop to the Johnson Protocol, and there is a strong perception that Northern Ireland has chiefly been valued as a battleground for the government’s trench warfare with the EU.

The build-up to the recent violence

Brexit is of course not the sole cause of what is now going wrong. In various ways, the underpinnings of the Agreement have been weakening for eight or nine years; and a number of factors led to the Executive collapsing in early 2017. But the tensions that Brexit has provoked, and the necessity to create a border somewhere – across the island, around the two islands, or between Great Britain and Ireland (the inevitable choice, because the other two are unfeasible) have seriously envenomed matters.

Nevertheless, Julian Smith, the last Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, developed a strong rapport with all the main Northern Ireland parties, and the Irish government, and was able to reach the New Decade, New Approach agreement to bring the institutions back early last year. But he was promptly sacked, apparently for having offended Number 10, a step widely seen in Northern Ireland as indicating the government’s general lack of concern for its affairs. He was replaced by Brandon Lewis.

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Northern Ireland in its centenary year: reviving the promise of the Good Friday Agreement

Yesterday’s blogpost suggested that the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement settlement might be facing its greatest threat ever. Some now see a border poll, and early Irish unity as the answer. Here, Alan Whysall, a member of the Unit’s Working Group on Unification Referendums on the island of Ireland, gives a personal perspective. He argues that a majority for unity is probably not imminent; a fixation on the ‘union versus unity’ debate may be profoundly damaging; and that whatever the preferred constitutional outcome, the key requirement now is to revive the Agreement, and people in Northern Ireland need to take the lead on that.

The Constitution Unit has published, for consultation, the interim report of its working group on the possibility of a border poll and processes around it. We take no view on whether there should be a poll, or Irish unity.

This work is necessary given the absence of explicit provision in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement about the shape of a united Ireland or the route to it. The debate on unity is already happening: it needs to be well informed and to address all the key issues involved in unification. It has so far barely engaged with them.

There is now a strong campaign in favour of an early border poll. Sinn Féin seeks early government preparations, though the SDLP (which is setting up a Commission on the issues), and the parties in the Irish coalition government (which is leading with its Shared Ireland initiative), believe the time is not yet right for a poll. 

But in Northern Ireland, those advocating unity are to all appearances the only people with a plan – even to audiences who might think it flawed.

Unionism appears divided and bewildered. Unionist commentators, starting in 2018 with the former DUP leader Peter Robinson, have occasionally suggested preparation for a border poll. But unionism is not yet rising to the challenges of a poll. At present in Northern Ireland most parties seek to appeal to their own side of the community. In the unity debate, each side needs arguments, and the people to make them, who can reach into the centre ground and the other camp. 

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100 years of the Government of Ireland Act: how it provided a model for Westminster-Edinburgh relations

The Government of Ireland Act 1920 is 100 years old tomorrow. David Torrance examines the legislation and its impact, arguing that a number of the constitutional conventions that regulate relations between Westminster and Holyrood have roots in those that applied to Stormont between 1920 and 1972.

Wednesday 23 December marks the centenary of royal assent for the Government of Ireland Act 1920 (the ‘1920 Act’). That this created the part of the UK known as ‘Northern Ireland’ and its border is well known, but its devolution settlement – a parliament, government, governor and prime minister – has largely faded from public consciousness.

As the historian Graham Walker has observed, Northern Ireland ‘serves as a reminder that devolution and constitutional change has a long, complex, and fascinating history, and did not just appear magically at the end of the twentieth century’ [1]. Indeed, this blog will argue that many of the constitutional conventions now associated with Holyrood-Westminster relations have antecedents in those which developed between Stormont and the UK parliament between 1921 and 1972. There was also one major difference, self-determination, analysis of which concludes this piece.

A ‘sound custom’ of non-interference

Speaking during Lords consideration of the Scotland Bill in 1998, Lord Sewel observed that ‘as happened in Northern Ireland earlier in the century’ the government would expect ‘a convention to be established that Westminster would not normally legislate with regard to devolved matters in Scotland without the consent of the Scottish parliament’. This would later come to be known as the Sewel convention.

The Northern Ireland precedent acknowledged by Lord Sewel was established in 1922 when Home Secretary Edward Shortt (who had responsibility for GB-NI relations at the time, as there was no Northern Ireland Office) advised withholding royal assent for a bill abolishing the Single Transferable Vote method for local government elections (a matter ‘transferred’ to Belfast). When Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister Sir James Craig and his Cabinet threatened to resign, assent was granted.

By 1953, a Treasury document could state that:

In practice the United Kingdom Parliament refrains from legislating on matters with which the Northern Ireland Parliament can deal, except at the request and with the consent of Northern Ireland. It is recognised that any departure from this practice would be open to objection as impairing the responsibility which has been placed on the Northern Ireland Parliament and Government.

HM Treasury, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man: A Treasury Paper, December 1953, page 9
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