The Constitution Unit is leading a Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland composed of academics from London, Dublin, Belfast, and the United States. The Working Group released its interim report in November and is now working on a final report. In this post, the Working Group’s Project Manager and Research Assistant Conor J. Kelly explores how the group gathered evidence, as well as the challenges of examining this issue during a pandemic, and in a divided society.
Purpose of the project
The Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland is examining how any future referendums on whether Northern Ireland should become part of a united Ireland or remain part of the UK would best be designed and conducted. Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is obliged to call such a vote if a majority for a united Ireland appears ‘likely’. If such a vote does happen, it will be vital that the process is designed and conducted well. The goal of the Working Group is to stimulate thinking on how this would be done.
Assembling an expert team
The first step was to assemble a diverse team of experts with insight on the legal, political, sociological, and historical elements of a question of this magnitude. These diverse perspectives created valuable awareness of both the possible and probable parameters of any future process of decision-making around the unification question, balancing both legal and political considerations. I feel that the ability to lay out legal realities alongside contextual analysis of the politics that might be at play is a major strength of the Working Group. As an early career researcher and a PhD student myself, working alongside such an esteemed group of academics has been an invaluable professional experience.
Researching existing literature and material
One of my main tasks has been to trawl through scholarly literature, reports, manifestos, and other policy documents in search of concrete proposals for the referendum process or the form of a united Ireland. Though this issue has in various forms dominated Irish (and often British) politics since the 19th century, surprisingly little has been written on different constitutional models and processes which might be undertaken. There has been more work in recent years, particularly by the Ireland’s Future and Constitutional Conversations groups, and in Justice Richard Humphreys’ book Beyond the Border. But despite these interventions, many of the issues which would need to be resolved were a referendum or a united Ireland ever to happen have scarcely been explored. There has been substantial commentary on a border poll in the media, but this is a fast-moving debate, without a detailed or agreed landing point.Continue reading