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

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: politics on the move, destination uncertain

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Three years on from the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive m prompted by the RHI scandal, a power sharing government has returned to Stormont on the back of a deal that promises a ‘new approach’. Alan Whysall analyses the new deal, how it might work in practice and what pitfalls might await the new ministerial team.

We have devolved government in Northern Ireland once more, with a new political deal, New Decade, New Approach. This is a cause for real hope, responding to the public mood, and the politics dictate it must operate for the moment. Many of the underpinnings are, however, fragile. Government and politics need to operate differently if they are to succeed in the longer term.

The last thousand days

Government in Northern Ireland has been in abeyance for three years. In early 2017, one of the two main parties, Sinn Féin, withdrew over the involvement of the other, the DUP, in a mismanaged sustainable energy scheme, the Renewable Heat Incentive. Beneath the surface were other tensions, notably around respect for Irish identity – crystallised latterly in demands from Sinn Féin and others for an Irish Language Act. Division between the parties was sharpened by Brexit, which the DUP favoured but others did not; and later by its Westminster alliance with the May government. 

While devolution operated, parties in government had moderated their language. Once it collapsed, rhetoric, and feeling in parts of the community, became hardened and polarised, reminiscent of the atmosphere before the Good Friday Agreement. The British government, under uninspiring Secretaries of State and writhing in its Brexit agonies, incurred universal mistrust. Relations between London and Dublin became tense. The prospect of Irish unity through a border poll – which the Agreement makes in principle a matter for simple majorities in both parts of Ireland – featured increasingly in Sinn Féin’s approach, and appeared from opinion polling to be growing closer. Paramilitaries on both sides saw opportunities in the political vacuum; last spring dissident Republicans, seeking to kill police officers, murdered a journalist, Lyra McKee.

There was at first remarkable equanimity over the extraordinary situation of Northern Ireland being left without government, beyond civil servants minding the shop. The British government hesitated to impose direct rule, as in the past; its dependence on the DUP would have made such a step destabilising. 

A report late last year by the new Northern Ireland think tank Pivotal shows how seriously Northern Ireland has suffered from inattention to its grave economic and social problems, under devolution and since. Continue reading

What does the election result mean for territorial representation in the House of Commons?

jack_sheldon.1We have a new parliament, a new majority government and a significant number of new MPs. As Jack Sheldon explains, the distribution of MPs by party is not even across the UK, which could have a significant impact on how the Commons handles key matters related to Brexit and the devolved administrations. 

The general election result has underlined that there are substantially different patterns of electoral competition in each of the four territories that comprise the United Kingdom. For the third consecutive election, a different party secured the most seats and votes in each of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Moreover, the large majority secured by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives relied overwhelmingly on an exceptionally strong performance in England – of the 365 seats won by the Conservatives, 345 are in England.

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The territorial divergence that the UK’s politics has experienced over recent decades has important implications not just for election outcomes, but for the substantive activity of representation performed by MPs in the House of Commons. MPs often seek to act as ‘territorial representatives’, focusing on the specific concerns of their nation or region. This has not so far received much attention from academics, a gap which my PhD project is seeking to fill by examining the parliamentary behaviour of MPs from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and two English counties, Cornwall and Yorkshire, between 1992 and 2019. Early findings suggest that substantive territorial representation is particularly prevalent among members of nationalist parties and other parties that run candidates only in one territory, but that it is also a relatively common feature of the parliamentary contributions of many members of the UK-wide parties, at least in more recent parliaments. It can take various forms including representation of the material interests, public opinion and culture and/or identity of the territory in question, or of sub-state political institutions. With crucial questions pertaining to the future of the Union set to be up for discussion, how can we expect MPs from the different parts of the UK to go about representing their territories in the new parliament?

England 

Despite being drawn so overwhelmingly from English constituencies, there are few indications that the enlarged group of Conservative MPs will explicitly focus on England as a unit. While the Conservatives introduced English votes for English laws in 2015 and some prominent Conservative MPs have called for an English Parliament in the past, the ‘West Lothian question’ has slipped down the political agenda over the past few years as Brexit has emerged as the dominant issue for the right. That seems unlikely to change now, despite some interest from external commentators such as Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s former special adviser. Conservative interest in the constitutional English question was always motivatived to a significant extent by concern that a Labour-led government might be able to force through policies applying only to England even though a majority of English MPs were opposed, as happened on a few occasions in the New Labour years. With the Conservatives now having a large majority overall, the political incentive to focus on the English question just isn’t there at the moment. 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

The next PM’s territorial challenges

jack_sheldon.1The next stages of Brexit are now set to happen under a new Prime Minister. The chosen candidate will have to work with governments in Wales and Scotland that are openly critical. Northern Ireland may be without a government and the English regions may lack a unified voice, but neither can be taken for granted, especially as the new PM will rely on the DUP for confidence and supply. Leaving the European Union therefore cannot be separated from the challenges of maintaining the domestic union, as Jack Sheldon explains.

Following the announcement of Theresa May’s imminent resignation, the long-anticipated contest within the Conservative Party to succeed her has begun.

The campaign will inevitably be dominated by Brexit. But events over the past three years have shown that the future of relations with the EU cannot easily be separated from the future of the domestic Union. The candidates will thus need to give careful thought to how they will approach the major statecraft challenges presented by territorial politics across the UK if they become Prime Minister.

Renegotiating the Northern Ireland backstop will be popular with Conservative MPs – but a new Prime Minister might soon face the same dilemma as Theresa May

The Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ has been the main driver of opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement within the parliamentary Conservative Party and their confidence-and-supply partners the DUP. Consequently, there are strong short-term incentives for leadership contenders to commit to renegotiating it, in the hope that it might yet be possible to get a deal that doesn’t cut across Brexiteer red lines on the Single Market and customs union through the House of Commons. Pledges to this effect have already been made by Jeremy HuntBoris JohnsonEsther McVey and Dominic Raab.

In reality, substantive changes to the backstop will be extremely difficult to deliver. It remains the position of the EU27 and the Irish government that the Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened.  Keeping an open Irish border has become highly salient in Ireland and the EU, and the new Prime Minister will need to appreciate that this means there is next to no chance that they will be open to trading the guarantees provided by the backstop for the loosely-defined ‘alternative arrangements’ envisaged by many Conservative MPs. The same dilemma Theresa May faced might thus soon confront her successor – whether, as an avowed unionist, to recoil from a no-deal scenario that would undoubtedly have disruptive effects at the Irish border and strengthen the case for an Irish border poll, or whether the delivery of Brexit trumps everything else.

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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