Analysis: We need to talk about referendums, north and south, on Irish unification

A referendum on Irish unification - a so-called border poll - might happen in the coming years. The government doesn’t want one, but may have little choice, says Dr Alan Renwick (UCL Constitution Unit).

Under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the Northern Ireland secretary must call a vote if a majority for unification looks likely. That condition is not currently met: polls show majority support in Northern Ireland for the Union. That situation might continue, but equally might not. The potential impact of Brexit, Covid-19 and developments in Scotland are unknowable. Given this possibility, the UK government and other interested parties need to be aware of what a referendum on the unification question would involve. Politics in Northern Ireland is a delicate balancing act. Lurching into a vote unprepared could have serious consequences.

Yet no detailed plan for such a vote exists. The 1998 agreement sets out basic parameters, but leaves much unspecified and no one has filled in the gaps since. It is understandable that neither the British nor the Irish government wants to be seen to be preparing for a referendum. But someone needs to put in the necessary contingency planning.

For that reason, the working group on unification referendums on the island of Ireland has been examining these issues for the past year, and we have just published our interim report. The group comprises 12 scholars based in Northern Ireland, Ireland, Great Britain, and the United States. We have no collective view on whether a referendum should happen or what the result should be if it does: our purpose is simply to understand the mechanics. Our interim report sets our preliminary analysis. Now we want to hear from others about the conclusions we have reached.

We find that unification cannot take place without referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Those votes would not necessarily have to be on the same day, but they would have to be on the same proposals. If North and South both voted for a united Ireland, unification would have to follow. The threshold for victory would be a simple majority - 50 per cent plus one - in each jurisdiction.

A crucial question concerns how the secretary of state should decide whether a referendum is required. Evidence sources would include election results, opinion polls and surveys, and any votes on the issue in the Northern Ireland Assembly. These would have to be weighed with manifest honesty and impartiality.

Campaign rules are badly outmoded in both the UK and Ireland. Reforms are urgently needed to prevent unfair campaign spending, tackle misinformation and improve the quality of information available to voters.

Perhaps the trickiest question concerns how any referendums would best be timed: before or after the form of a united Ireland was worked out. Holding them afterwards would allow voters to know more precisely what they were choosing between, but might make participation from all parts of the community in designing a united Ireland less likely. This is a genuine conundrum, with no perfect solution.

All of this means that unification referendums should be called only with a clear plan for the processes that would follow: the dangers of going in unprepared are too high. A plan would best be agreed by both the British and Irish governments, before a referendum was called. That doesn’t mean now. But the future possibility needs to be understood.

This article originally appeared in The Times on 30 November 2020.

Links:

  • Original article in The Times
  • Working Group on Unification Referendums on the island of Ireland: Interim report
  • Working Group on Unification Referendums on the island of Ireland
  • D r Alan Renwick ’s academic profile
  • UCL Constitution Unit
  • UCL Political Science
  • Faculty of Social & Historical Sciences

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