The Constitution Unit has today announced the creation of a new Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland. In this post, Alan Renwick and Alan Whysall explain why the group is needed, what issues it will examine and how it will work.
The Constitution Unit has today announced that, with generous funding from the British Academy’s Humanities and Social Sciences Tackling the UK’s International Challenges programme, it is creating a new Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland. Comprising 13 political scientists, lawyers, sociologists, and historians based in Belfast, Dublin and London, this group will work over the coming year to examine the processes before, during and after any future referendums on the question of Irish unity – beginning with what is often known as a ‘border poll’ in Northern Ireland. It is an expert group: it will take no view on the desirability in principle of referendums, nor on any of the outcomes that may follow. In this post, we set out why such an exercise is needed, what questions the group is likely to explore, and what form the project will take.
Why the Working Group is needed
A deep investigation into unification referendums on the island of Ireland is needed for three interlinked reasons. First, such referendum might actually happen, potentially very soon. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 – which enshrines the key elements of the Good Friday Agreement in UK law – says that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland ‘shall’ call such a poll ‘if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland’. While opinion polls continue to indicate that there is no majority for a united Ireland at present, the trend is towards greater support for that proposition, and some recent polls have suggested that a hard Brexit would shift opinion further. It is thus possible that the condition for triggering a referendum will be met in the near future. Continue reading