What do people in Northern Ireland think of unification referendums?

A new article published in Irish Political Studies this week presents the findings of a consultation on public attitudes towards referendums on Irish unification. In this post, the article’s authors, Alan Renwick, Nadia Dobrianska, Conor J. Kelly, and Charlotte Kincaid, summarise the findings and explore their implications for when the processes around such referendums would best be designed.

Through the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, the Constitution Unit has recently examined how any possible future referendums on Irish unification might best be designed and conducted. The Unit is neither for nor against holding such referendums; nor does it have a view on the constitutional question itself. But such votes might happen in the future (they are legally required in certain circumstances) and, if they happen, it will be better if their design has been thought through in advance. That was the task taken on by the Working Group. One part of the research undertaken for the group was a consultation exploring public views on such referendums. The full results of the consultation have now been published in Irish Political Studies.

The design of the consultation

Opinion polls in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland often ask how respondents would vote in a referendum on the unification question. Some also enquire about whether people support holding a referendum. Qualitative research has yielded insights too. But less work has dug into people’s thoughts on how any such vote should be conducted. Yet public views on these issues matter. Choices about the design of a referendum need to be viewed as legitimate. They are less likely to achieve that if they cut across existing expectations. Hence the Working Group’s desire to find out what people thought.

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As the House of Commons begins to look at a new employment model for MPs’ staff, we should look to other legislatures to see what we can learn from them

A Speaker’s Conference has been established to determine if changes need to be made to the employment arrangements for MPs’ staff. How the UK’s other legislatures manage and recruit their staff can help inform that process. As part of a long-term project on MPs’ staff, Rebecca McKee analyses how three of the UK’s legislatures recruit, employ and pay members’ staff.   

While their precise roles vary, legislators almost everywhere require support staff in order to do their job effectively. In the UK, these staff and their employment arrangements have become the focus both of public attention and internal scrutiny, through a series of reviews in Westminster and the devolved parliaments of Scotland and Wales. Later this year, in the House of Commons, the Speaker’s Conference on the employment of Members’ staff will consider other options for staffing arrangements as those currently in place in are only one of a range of possibilities.

This post outlines the current staffing arrangements in three of the UK’s parliaments – the House of Commons, Scottish Parliament and Senedd Cymru – and the key similarities and differences in their employment arrangements. The post covers the key areas of governance, division of roles and salaries and recruitment in each area. It also briefly highlights other possible options from legislatures elsewhere.

Devolved parliaments

Referendums in 1997 paved the way for the creation of the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, the latter being renamed the Senedd Cyrmu in 2020 following the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020. 

Both of these bodies adopted staffing arrangements similar to those of Westminster, whereby each member employs their own staff within a statutory regulatory framework covering some, but not all, terms and conditions. Each has a designated body responsible for determining the structure and rules on staffing and administering payrolls. The material they produce is a combination of guidance to members – as office holders who employ their staff, there is a balance to be struck between setting rules for best practice and encroaching on the autonomy of the member as the employer – and mandatory policies, such as the rules to be followed when members claim money for staff salaries.

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Northern Ireland: how can power-sharing be revived?

Alan Whysall was a panellist in the session on Northern Ireland at the Unit’s State of the Constitution conference on 23 June. This revision of his talk draws on his paper for the Unit on Northern Ireland’s Political Future, and its accompanying blogpost. He argues that stable power-sharing can only return through good faith inclusive negotiation – which is not a part of London’s current approach – and a reinforcement of the foundations of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

It is essential to bring all the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement institutions back as soon as possible: that unlocks the potential for political progress. Without the institutions, polarisation grows; the longer they are away, the harder ultimately the Agreement settlement is to sustain. And there is no alternative as a framework for the stable government of Northern Ireland.

Devolution still has wide popular support and the political class has a strong self-interest in restoring the institutions, if only because paying them not to undertake government is becoming unpopular. But there are big questions about how.

The government’s approach

Can the institutions be stably restored the government’s way? Setting aside for now judgements about the government’s approach, its integrity, or the extraordinary contents (breach of international obligations, vast delegation of powers to ministers) of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, this seems to me to be doubtful.

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The role of judges in judicial appointments in Ireland

The Irish government has proposed a bill to reform the method by which the country appoints its judges. Patrick O’Brien discusses the proposals, and argues that several of the criticisms levelled against the bill lack force.

Judicial appointments in Ireland are shortly due to be put on a more formal footing. When the Irish Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2022 is enacted, it will provide for an appointments commission designed in the image of many similar bodies that have been developed in common law jurisdictions in the last 30 years. The bill has, however, been the subject of recent criticism from the Chief Justice, Donal O’Donnell, who has questioned the composition of the proposed Commission.

Judicial appointments have been something of a saga in Irish politics in the last few years. The current system is widely regarded as inadequate and has been the subject of repeated proposals for reform in the past decade. An independent Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB), chaired by the Chief Justice, receives and comments on applications for judicial office from outside the judiciary but leaves appointments essentially to the political discretion of the government, which in theory (though all the evidence suggests, not in practice) leaves open the possibility of a more politicised judiciary. Promotions of existing judges are not considered by the JAAB at all. It is generally accepted, therefore, that appointments require reform. The current bill is the second to be put to the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) since 2017. The 2017 bill was demanded as the price of entering coalition government by Shane Ross, a campaigning journalist and then an independent TD. This bill would have created a rather unwieldy body with 13 members and a lay majority and chair, as well as a number of sub-committees which would be called into being depending on the nature of the appointment. For a small jurisdiction which makes only a handful of judicial appointments each year, the system was significantly over-designed.

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Post-election negotiations in Northern Ireland must set the Belfast Agreement on a firmer footing and re-establish constructive politics

Alan Whysall, Honorary Senior Research Associate of the Constitution Unit, looks at the Northern Ireland Assembly elections held last week. He suggests that the foundations of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement continue to weaken, and there is no sign of the government offering any response that might strengthen them; its proposals on the Northern Ireland Protocol risk making matters worse. Alan’s discussion paper on Northern Ireland’s political future: challenges after the Assembly elections was published last Friday, and is summarised in this blog, and discussed in this podcast.

The election results, though well forecast by polling, were reported in dramatic terms by media outside Northern Ireland, with coverage focusing on Sinn Féin displacing the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as the largest party.

They reflect the increasing polarisation of Northern Ireland politics, fuelled by unionist concerns over the Northern Ireland Protocol. So Traditional Unionist Voice, to the right of the DUP, tripled its vote. The DUP lost approaching a quarter of its vote – but probably, with its line that only it could ensure there was a unionist First Minister, scooped up some support from the Ulster Unionists, who fared poorly. In the event, the DUP won 25 seats, more than many predicted.

But the line about First Ministers was heard even more on the other side, resulting in more nationalist votes going to Sinn Féin. That made it the largest party in the Assembly with 27 seats. The nationalist SDLP lost out grievously; with eight members, it is too small to gain a ministerial position.

The other notable phenomenon in the election, though, was the rise of the centre ground, those identifying as neither unionist nor nationalist – which means now, almost exclusively, the Alliance party. Alliance more than doubled its Assembly seats to 17. It is now the third largest party, instead of fifth. The binary assumptions of the Agreement, that politics is essentially about unionist and nationalist blocs, may be increasingly unsustainable.

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