Calling a Border poll without clear plan would be unwise, experts warn

Years of acrimony over Brexit highlight the dangers of referendums, say experts

A group of constitutional experts  suggest that British and Irish governments should work together to start planning in good time before the referendums. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

A group of constitutional experts suggest that British and Irish governments should work together to start planning in good time before the referendums. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

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It would be unwise to call a Border poll in the North and a unification referendum in the Republic without a clear plan for what happens next, a group of constitutional experts has warned. They suggest the British and Irish governments should work together to start planning in good time before the referendums.

The Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, based at University College London’s (UCL) Constitutional Unit, is a group of academics from both parts of Ireland, Britain and the United States.

Their final report says the years of acrimony over Brexit highlight the dangers of calling referendums on important constitutional questions without adequate preparation.

‘Uncertain future’

“The future of the United Kingdom is highly uncertain at the moment, with potential implications for the whole island of Ireland. Pressure for an independence referendum in Scotland is strong, and the protocol has created real tensions in Northern Ireland,” said the working group’s chair Alan Renwick, deputy director of the UCL Constitution Unit.

“The working group is not pushing for a referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future in any way. But we are saying that such a vote might be legally required in the not-too-distant future. Everyone involved needs to think through carefully what that process would be like. The working group has done the groundwork of establishing the issues that need to be addressed and weighing the merits of different options. We urge the relevant political actors to give our analysis their serious and considered attention.”

Under the Belfast Agreement, the Northern Ireland secretary must call a Border poll “if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would support unification”. The report says the Irish Government would have to call a referendum either on the same day or shortly afterwards if the North votes for unification and that London and Dublin should make a clear plan for the processes of decision making that would follow the calling of a Border poll.

‘Consequential changes’

“Such a plan would provide for: when referendums would take place North and South; what the conduct rules would be for these referendums and how breaches would be addressed (or how and when these rules would be determined); how the governments would conduct themselves during the process whether the process would have an external chair; what matters would need to be discussed or negotiated by whom, at what stages, in what forums; what the process and timetable would be for implementing the result of the referendum and any consequential changes; what would happen in the event of divergent outcomes between North and South,” the report says.

It considers whether the Irish Government should work out a detailed model ahead of a Border poll for how a united Ireland would work. And it looks at various constitutional options for a united Ireland, as a unitary state or a federal structure and at whether the Stormont institutions should continue after Northern Ireland leaves the UK.