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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Can muscular unionism save the Union?

Several UK politicians have been described as embracing a ‘muscularform of unionism, which includes taking a hard line against the possibility of constituent parts of the UK leaving the Union. As Iain McLean warns, muscular unionism can look like ‘know your place unionism’ and history has shown that such a muscular approach can backfire and hasten the very secession it seeks to prevent.

The phrase ‘muscular unionism’ is new but the concept is not. As Prime Minister, Boris Johnson called Scottish devolution ‘a disaster north of the border’. Liz Truss said while campaigning for the Conservative leadership that she would ‘ignore’ the ‘attention seeker’, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. She was true to her word, never contacting Sturgeon or Mark Drakeford, First Minister of Wales, during her premiership. Lord (David) Frost, who served as a member of Johnson’s Cabinet, recently wrote:

The Scottish “government” is not the government of a state in confederation with England. It is a subordinate entity within the UK, with powers granted to it by the UK government and Parliament, and ultimately subject to the supremacy of that Parliament.

It does indeed sound muscular, but it ended in tears and self-contradiction last time, and there is no reason to expect differently this time. The UK government would be well advised to become a little weedier than PMs Johnson or Truss. Rishi Sunak contacted Sturgeon and Drakeford on his first full day in office as Prime Minister. Is this a hopeful sign?

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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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Are unionists the biggest threat to the Union?

There has been much debate in recent years (on this blog and elsewhere) on the validity of a second referendum on an independent Scotland. Defence of the Union has often been by reassertion of the unitary nation-state model. Michael Keating argues that this demonstrates a fundamental misconception of what union means, and that the nationalism implied by the nature of a union maintained by law, rather than the consent of its people, represents a threat to the continuing Union of the United Kingdom.

In its 2020 White Paper on the Internal Market, the British government described the United Kingdom as a ‘unitary state’. Although, for many at Westminster, this might sound rather banal, it betrays a serious misunderstanding of what is, and always has been, a plurinational union. Such misunderstandings are pulling the Union apart.

Four dimensions

In my book State and Nation in the United Kingdom, I spell out the difference between a unitary nation-state and a plurinational union by reference to four dimensions: demos; telos; ethos; and sovereignty.

Demos refers to the people and whether they are singular or plural. When prime ministers declare that ‘the British people’ voted for Brexit, they are invoking a unitary demos, but begging the question of what ‘the British people’ actually means. In fact, the peoples of ‘these islands’ have varied national identities, some identifying only as British and others not seeing themselves as British at all. It is not as simple as four separate identities because, within each of the component nations, there are complex forms of belonging and multiple forms of national identification. Some unionists are now arguing that Britishness is a common, overarching identity but that, underneath it, are the local varieties. Yet this does not work either. Britishness itself is experienced and defined very differently from one part of the United Kingdom to another. The fact that the United Kingdom does not even have an adjective for its citizens indicates the difficulty of fitting Northern Ireland in. Britishness is analogous to what the philosopher Wittgenstein called a ‘family resemblance’. Any two members of the family may share a feature in common but there is no feature common to them all.

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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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