Avoiding a rerun of Brexit by planning ahead

Voters want to know what a united Ireland means before any referendum, but unionist politicians won’t want any such discussions until after a referendum

NI poll image week two

If and when referendums on Irish unification are held, North and South, what exactly should the public be told before voting? Should it be made clear to them what Irish unity would look like if it is voted for in the referendums? If so, this decision would involve spelling out clearly, before any referendums, what model of Irish unity would be on offer: integrated or devolved.

A different approach is possible, however. Here the publics would be told that the referendums are simply a vote on the principle of Irish unity, and that the exact model of unity would be sorted out after the referendums. Voters would be told before the referendums that if unity is supported in the referendums then afterwards there would be a constitutional convention, made up of representatives elected from across the whole island by proportional representation, and tasked to decide on either a devolved or integrated united Ireland.

We put these two options to our respondents, ie, to decide on the model of Irish unity before or after the referendum.

Both North and South, the publics want the model of a united Ireland specified before any referendums (see table below). Three fifths in the South want such clarity and just less than one third preferred to decide the model after the referendum.

Poll week 2

The desire to know the details before any referendum was even greater in the North, supported by almost seven in 10 respondents compared to the nearly one in seven who favoured a constitutional convention after the referendums. Strikingly, both Northern Catholics and Protestants have almost the same proportions in favour of specifying the model before the referendums.

In our focus group discussions among the generally undecided, both North and South, our participants strongly favoured model-specification before the referendums. They wanted to avoid the UK’s problems with Brexit after 2016.

They were harshly critical of the lack of clear information given to voters before the Brexit referendum and strongly emphasised the need for the clear and honest provision of facts and information. One southern participant stated: “I mean, are they just going to do it, you know, on the principle of unity alone or would they decide to be more informative so that we don’t make a Brexit disaster? So would they discuss how they may go about it, would we have one government down here, would we have maybe federalised provinces or how would we go about ruling the country?”

Considerable fear was expressed about politicians spinning the facts and making false promises. Many citizens favoured independent experts who could be trusted to provide relevant information to voters before they voted. As one northern participant said: “Brexit became basically a PR stunt, didn’t it? It became promises that were not actually based on anything. I actually think a referendum for unification would have to be based more on fact. It may have to be that that becomes [from] outside the politicians. It may become that you need independent people internationally to come in…”

Experiencing consequences

Although our participants, both North and South, were highly familiar with Brexit, the greater support for model-specification in the North before the referendums in our survey may be the result of people in the North more directly experiencing the consequences of the Brexit vote.

To examine whether there was much partisan variation within the North and within the South on this question, we broke down our respondents by which parties they support.

Perhaps most striking is the difference between Sinn Féin voters, North and South (see graphic above). In the North, 74 per cent of them favour before and 18 per cent favour after, more than a four-to-one ratio (a net score +56). In the South, 59 per cent of Sinn Féin voters favour before and 34 per cent favour after, a much lower ratio of 1.7 to 1 (net score +25).

This facet of our data shows that supporters of the most ardent pro-unity party are softly split: its southerners are more relaxed about the vote being on a matter of principle while northerners want the specifics. Supporters of the TUV and UUP were strongly in favour of pre-referendum specification (net scores of +62 and +54 respectively), while Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael voters were less keen (+26 and +28).

We know from our previous work, conducting a small-scale citizens’ assembly on this issue in the South, that the level of support in the South for model-specification after the referendum declines when discussion and reflection takes place. So, the more people in the South think about this issue in the run up to a possible referendum, the more likely they are to strengthen their support for model-specification before the referendum.

These findings pose significant challenges to advocates of Irish unity. How exactly does the Irish Government specify before the referendums which particular model of unification is on offer? If unionist politicians are only likely to engage in discussions of which model of a united Ireland to implement when they have lost in the referendums, that will inhibit a fully inclusive process of model identification before the referendums.

One way out of this conundrum would be to engage unionist voters rather than politicians – through surveys, focus groups and deliberative forums. If these are properly conducted, they would enable inclusive public engagement in the process of specifying the model before the referendums. Such methods may not make the difficult and politically sensitive task of model specification easier, but it would enable an informed and inclusive process.

Another response would be more radical. Namely, to try to convince the public that voting in the referendum on a matter of principle and clarifying the details in a subsequent constitutional convention need not necessarily involve Brexit-esque chaos and confusion. If the constitutional convention had a clear remit, was subject to a publicised set of principles, and was time-constrained, that could allow unionists a role in shaping the model of a united Ireland. Given our results, however, persuading the publics of the merits of this course would be exceptionally difficult.