United Ireland would grant unionists ‘significant’ opportunities in coalitions

Research shows preference for creation of integrated unitary state over devolved model

Unionists in a united Ireland would have "significant opportunities" to take a role in future coalition governments because of proportional representation voting, a leading academic has said.

Prof Brendan O’Leary of the University of Pennsylvania was speaking after the release of research findings from a “mini-citizens’ assembly” in the Republic, which explored the options for establishing a united Ireland if a referendum was called.

The research showed a clear preference for the creation of an integrated unitary state in which Northern Ireland ceased to exist as a political entity, over an alternative model in which the devolved Northern institutions would continue to function within the framework of a united Ireland.

Prof O'Leary, an authority on the Belfast Agreement, made his remarks at an online forum for the UCD Institute for British-Irish Studies, which carried out the research among a representative sample of 50 citizens in the Republic.


Participants were told that Northern cultural Protestants would have a “significant stake” in the formation of coalition governments as they would make up a sixth or a seventh of the population in a united Ireland.

“The model of an integrated Ireland that we had was clearly not a majoritarian one because the electoral system used for both chambers would be proportional representation,” Prof O’Leary said.


“It would be overwhelmingly unlikely that a single-party government would be formed. Therefore, unionists would have significant opportunities to play a role in voluntary coalitions.”

The participants favoured the option of an integrated united Ireland – over one in which devolved Northern institutions such as the power-sharing regional executive continued – both before and after a discussion of the question.

The two models were the only ones foreseen under the Belfast Agreement, which allows the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland to call a referendum there on a united Ireland if he or she finds that public opinion has moved in favour of that option.

Such research findings were drawn from a “mini-public deliberative forum on constitutional futures” which met online for three hours in April. The group did not discuss the economic implications of reunification at length.

Prof John Garry of Queen's University Belfast said support in the group of 50 for the integrated option was 5.2 on a one to seven scale before discussion and 5.5 after a more detailed consideration. "They preferred the integrated united Ireland model to the devolved model," Prof Garry said.

“An Irish government that acted in line with the considered views of its citizens – at least observed in this study – would explicitly indicate significantly before any referendum [that may be held not immediately but in five to 10 years] that an integrated united Ireland would follow from affirmative referendums in favour of unification,” he added.

“In much more simple terms, these findings seem to suggest that the Irish government should basically just tell everyone well in advance that if there is ever a united Ireland it’s going to be an integrated one.”

Prof O’Leary said the creation of an integrated unitary state did not necessarily mean “entirely uniform” political structures.

“Integration could take place on the basis of common policies everywhere on everything but it might be possible for example for the existing Northern Ireland local government units to be preserved rather than reconverting the North back to the county government and urban borough government model that prevails in the South,” he said.

Cultural difference

“The core idea I think behind integration is notion of a common citizenship prevailing everywhere and not having direct institutionalisation of cultural difference.”

Researchers wanted to avoid giving the impression that an integrated Ireland necessarily involved a “simple transfer” of existing Southern practices in range of policies to the North. At the same time, they made it clear the pace of institutional and policy change would be much slower in the devolved model because existing Northern arrangements would persist.

“Southern participants were concerned to know what Northern preferences were,”said Prof O’Leary.

“We had deliberately identified to them the possibility that Unionist leaders would not wish to engage in discussion of the precise nature of a united Ireland until they had lost in a referendum -- and that made it more difficult than it might otherwise be for the Irish government to engage Northern public opinion.

“So we deliberately set things up so that our participants would reflect on the fact that the Northern referendum is not in the control of the Southern Government.”

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley is Current Affairs Editor of The Irish Times