A starter pack for an informed debate on a united Ireland

Assessing the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland report

 A sticker reading “No Border, No Brexit”  on a road sign near the Hands Across The Divide sculpture in Derry. Photographer: Mary Turner/Bloomberg

A sticker reading “No Border, No Brexit” on a road sign near the Hands Across The Divide sculpture in Derry. Photographer: Mary Turner/Bloomberg

 

The Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, centred in University College London, funded by the British Academy and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, and chaired by Dr Alan Renwick, has produced its Final Report. It deals with the legal and political parameters of any future referendums on Irish unification, and outlines the very many procedural issues that need to be decided.

The report takes the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998 as the starting point of its analysis. The GFA was the foundation of peace and settlement in Northern Ireland, a multi-party and international agreement, and it can only be revised by following these same procedures. The GFA makes clear that a referendum would be decided by a bare majority of voters – 50 per cent +1. That is the parameter within which agreement was reached in 1998. Even if there were not good reasons for it – and there are – it cannot now legitimately be changed.

The GFA is, however, relatively silent about the process of holding a referendum, and has very little to say about the process of unification. Here the report is at its best.

It outlines the tripartite configuration of international law, British law and Irish law, and the difficulty if Northern Ireland’s position was different at any point in time in these three legal systems. It clarifies the schedule of decisions and of referenda in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, noting that the “concurrent” agreement which is required for unity does not require simultaneous referenda.

It explains which parties have responsibility for negotiating which issues: the British government, through the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, is the official first mover in calling a referendum in Northern Ireland; only the Irish government can pledge to introduce changes to the Constitution of Ireland; while in matters of transfer of sovereignty both governments are involved and, in trading relations, also the EU. The report lists the very wide range of constitutional, political and public policy issues that would need to be decided if there were a vote for unity and raises questions of timing and sequencing.

The report is excellent on legal and technical detail and procedural choices. But there are three big political issues that need more sustained attention.

Constitution-making and constitutional moments are morally weighty processes. One can lose sight of this amidst the detailed procedural discussion. Chapter 7 notes that vision and values need to inform any future united Ireland but says little more about those values.

Is a united Ireland to accommodate the two traditions of nationalism and unionism? Or should it be a new Ireland that moves decisively beyond these two traditions? Is it to be an Ireland that is politically stable and good for business? And/or one that offers accountability, participation, responsibility, equality and cherishes diversity?

The vision can motivate change in the South, and can convince unionists that there is something valuable in the process. But the discussion is yet to be undertaken in either part of Ireland. Instead, in the South, we tiptoe around respect for (unionist) identity without principles respectfully to guide the inevitable changes in identity that come with political transformation. And getting the principles right would be good for both parts of the island, whatever the constitutional outcome.

Public participation in decision making is key to the legitimacy of the outcome. In chapter 6, the report outlines the Irish Government’s responsibility to put forward a model of a united Ireland and to engage in maximal consultation, between governments, with political parties and with the public. It proposes consultation with the public through civic dialogue (as in the Shared Island initiative or the North’s now defunct Civic Forum); citizens’ assemblies; commissions; and presumably opinion polls. This is good but it is still too conservative.

Opinion polls and citizen assemblies usually pre-set the questions to be put to the public. Commissions are composed of the great and the good adjudicating others’ submissions. We also need a bottom-up approach that lets diverse voices be heard. This means working with researchers and community groups to organise workshops, focus groups and interviews, and to find ways of feeding the results of one set of discussions into the next. Of course this is complex, but grass-roots networks work, and they provide more legitimacy than top-down control of choices. Everyday insights may be limited on technical matters, but they are indispensable in defining principles of governance and norms of accountability which respect equality and diversity.

The Irish Government has to put forward a model for a united Ireland but it faces a dilemma. If it does so before a referendum, then people will know what they are voting for, but unionists are unlikely to engage in discussion of the form of unity. If it does so only afterwards, then voters won’t know what they are voting for, but everyone will have an incentive to engage in discussion of the form of a united Ireland.

The answer surely has to be both. An interim model needs to be put forward before a referendum – either an integrated state or a devolved one – with an illustrative menu of possible changes that will be discussed afterwards. After a vote for unity, there would be an extended period of constitutional deliberation on further changes. This would make for a long constitutional moment on the island. It would allow the best constitutional design and public buy-in in a situation where people’s preferences change over time as the institutions themselves change.

There is much to be discussed. The report lays out the choices and shows the need for more extended discussion about vision, diversity and participation.

Jennifer Todd is author of Identity Change after Conflict (Springer 2018) and with John Coakley, Negotiating Settlement in Northern Ireland (Oxford 2020), a founder member of ARINS, research director of UCD Institute for British Irish Studies (IBIS), and co-lead in the IBIS research programme RESPIRE which aims to bring grass roots diversity into constitutional discussion.

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