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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Irish unification: processes and considerations

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Earlier this year, the International Association of Constitutional Law published a blog symposium on Irish Unification: Processes and Considerations, convened by Professor Oran Doyle. Here, Professor Doyle summarises the  contributions to the symposium. 

The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (GFA)—the agreement between the parties in Northern Ireland and the related international treaty between the British and Irish governments that was central to the peace settlement in 1998—built a new model of power-sharing politics on the foundation of a territorial compromise. On the one hand, Ireland and Irish nationalists accepted the legitimacy of Northern Ireland’s status as a component part of the United Kingdom. They thereby relinquished a territorial claim to the whole island of Ireland that had been advanced in different ways since independence and partition of the island of Ireland in 1921-22. On the other hand, the United Kingdom and unionists accepted that Northern Ireland would only remain part of the United Kingdom for as long as a majority of people in Northern Ireland so wished it. They thereby relinquished the right of the United Kingdom to preserve its own territorial boundaries.

In 1998, Irish unification seemed a distant prospect. The priority for most Irish nationalists—and certainly for all Irish governments—was to make the new political arrangements work, not to advocate for a united Ireland. But demographic change was slowly producing an electorate more open to unification, and Brexit has now dramatically increased the attractiveness of a united Ireland replete with EU membership. As a result, although opinions on the likelihood of a united Ireland diverge widely, the territorial compromise of 1998 is under pressure. 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 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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