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

How and when might a second referendum on Brexit come about?

download.001alan_renwick.000jess_sargent.000Today the Constitution Unit launches a report on the possible mechanics of a further referendum on Brexit. In the last of a series of posts on this topic, Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Jess Sargeant sum up the report’s findings, focusing on how a referendum might come about, what question would be asked, and the implications for referendum timing.

Our new report, The Mechanics of a Further Referendum on Brexit, is published today. While the report takes no position on whether a further referendum should be held, it explores the constitutional and legal questions that politicians would need to consider if proceeding with such a poll. Earlier blog posts in this series have considered the timetable, the possible triggers, the referendum question, the legal and regulatory framework, and the implications of extending Article 50. This post, based on the final chapter of the report, draws all this material together to consider how and when a further referendum might occur.

Conclusions from earlier chapters (and posts) include the following:

  • It would take at least 22 weeks to hold a referendum, following parliament’s initial decision. This is required for passing legislation, question testing by the Electoral Commission, and preparing and holding the campaign. An extra six weeks might be needed if a three-option question were used.
  • This implies that Article 50 would need to be extended, but this should be easy to achieve. The biggest complication is the European Parliament elections, due in late May 2019.
  • Given the planned parliamentary processes around Brexit there are five basic scenarios in which a referendum might be triggered – these are examined further below.
  • There are three viable options to put to a referendum – accepting the government’s deal with the EU (assuming there is one), leaving without a deal, or remaining in the EU. A yes/no vote on the deal would be unwise (as the meaning of a ‘no’ vote would be unclear). A two-part referendum would also be problematic. Hence the public might be offered the choice between two options, or all three options, in a single-question referendum.
  • The franchise for the poll should remain the same as in 2016, to avoid exacerbating arguments about legitimacy. Some updates to regulation (particularly regarding online campaigning) would be advisable.

Continue reading

What would be the rules for a second Brexit referendum?

jess_sargent.000alan_renwick.000download.001This week’s Labour Party conference leaves a further Brexit referendum firmly on the political agenda. In the sixth of a series of posts on the mechanics of such a vote, Jess Sargeant, Alan Renwick, and Meg Russell examine what rules and regulations should govern the referendum process, arguing that important changes are needed to facilitate a fair and transparent campaign.

If  a further referendum on Brexit is held, the rules governing how it is conducted would be of utmost importance. The UK’s standing legislation on referendums – the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) 2000 – is both incomplete and in some respects out of date. As explained in a previous post, a new referendum would require fresh legislation. This therefore needs to fill in the gaps and update the rules to reflect the realities of modern campaigning. The natural starting point would be the legislation that paved the way for the 2016 referendum – the European Union Referendum Act 2015. But even that has deficiencies. This post examines key points that new referendum legislation would need to address. It also considers non-legislative changes that could improve the referendum campaign.

The franchise: who should be able to vote in a further referendum?

The franchise for referendums in the UK is not specified in PPERA, so would need to be defined in the legislation for a further Brexit referendum. The 2016 referendum franchise included all those eligible to vote in UK parliamentary elections, plus members of the House of Lords and EU citizens resident in Gibraltar. Some proponents of a second referendum argue this should be extended to 16- and 17-year-olds and EU citizens resident in the UK.

There are good arguments for extending the franchise, and precedent for doing so: 16- and 17-year-olds and EU citizens resident in Scotland could vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. But – despite attempts to change this in parliament – the 2016 EU referendum legislation did not extend the right to vote to these groups, and consistency matters. If it appeared that the result of the 2016 referendum had been overturned because the franchise had been changed, many Leave supporters would view this outcome as illegitimate. As such, the franchise for any further referendum should be the same as for the 2016 vote.

How might referendum regulation be improved?

The referendum regulations in PPERA have not been substantively amended since they were introduced 2000. Since then, five referendums have been held, and the nature of communication and campaigning has changed significantly. Continue reading

How long would it take to hold a second referendum on Brexit?

jess_sargent.000alan_renwick.000Meg.Russell.000 (1)With exit day less than seven months away, one of the perceived obstacles to a second Brexit referendum is time. Here, in the second in a series of posts on the mechanics of a second referendumJess Sargeant, Alan Renwick and Meg Russell discuss the constraints, concluding a new referendum could be held much more quickly than previous polls but a delay to exit day would most likely still be needed.

In order for a referendum to be held in the UK, various processes must be completed, all of which take time. Many political commentators have dismissed the possibility of a second referendum on Brexit on the basis that there is insufficient time to hold one before the UK leaves the European Union, citing the EU referendum’s 13-month timetable as evidence of its impossibility. By contrast, many proponents of a ‘People’s Vote’ have argued that time is not a problem: earlier this month Vince Cable argued that a referendum could be legislated for ‘in a matter of weeks’.

The reality lies somewhere between these two positions: while the timing is challenging, it does not present an unsurmountable obstacle to a referendum.

What is required for a referendum to be held in the UK?

  • Legislation – Primary legislation is needed to provide the legal basis for the referendum and to specify details that are not in standing legislation, including the referendum question, the franchise, the date of the referendum, and the conduct rules for the poll (although the latter two are often ultimately left to secondary legislation).
  • Question testing – The Electoral Commission has a statutory duty to assess the ‘intelligibility’ of the referendum question, a process that usually takes 12 weeks.
  • Preparation for the poll itself – The Electoral Commission and local officials need time to prepare for administering the poll and regulating campaigners. The Commission recommends that the legislation should be clear at least six months before it is due to be complied with.
  • Regulated referendum period – The UK’s referendum legislation – the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) – specifies a minimum 10-week campaign period, during which campaign regulation applies.

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

How online quizzes could improve information during election campaigns: lessons from Germany

m.paleseOngoing Constitution Unit research is exploring how quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns can be improved. In recent years, voting advice applications have been promoted as a way of providing impartial, good-quality information on salient issues and parties’ positions thereon. Michela Palese outlines the debate on this topic and relates early thoughts from a research trip to Germany, where the state-sponsored Wahl-O-Mat was used 15.7 million times during the 2017 federal election campaign.

Since last May, Dr Alan Renwick and I have been working on a project to understand how the quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns could be improved. In this context, I have been examining ‘voting advice applications’ (VAAs): online tools that aim to assist users in their voting decision.

In this post, I briefly contextualise the emergence of VAAs and consider the debate on the role of such tools in the UK. I then report initial findings from a research trip to Germany, where the Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung; hereafter BPB) develops and promotes a voting advice application – the Wahl-O-Mat – for all federal and most state elections.

The origins of voting advice applications

The first VAA, the Stemwijzer, was developed in the Netherlands in 1989. Available on paper or on a diskette, it aimed to increase secondary school students’ knowledge of the differences and similarities among parties, and to aid the formation of party political choices. VAAs became available online in the mid-1990s in Finland and the Netherlands.

VAAs have spread particularly since the early 2000s, and almost all European countries now have at least one. While they take varied forms, all VAAs present users with statements to agree or disagree with and then match these responses to the positions of political parties. Developers generally use party manifestos or prior statements as a starting point, and often engage parties directly in the development process. Continue reading