The Irish Times view on unification referendums: democratic dilemmas
If it is plausible to think referendums on Irish unity could happen this decade, it would be prudent to plan for that possibility
The Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland makes a strong case for good preparation
In recent years Irish democracy has been enriched by greater public participation in major political choices through the use of dialogue forums, citizens’ assemblies and evidence-based argument to link up official and popular decision-making. The referendums on abortion and marriage equality exemplified these new processes and drew lessons from previous ill-prepared referendums on European issues in Ireland and the United Kingdom. That is all the more reason to welcome an important report which wants us to prepare well for prospective unification referendums on this island. It is plausible to think they could happen this decade and prudent to plan for that possibility.
The Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland makes a strong case for good preparation in its final report this week. Based in the Constitution Unit of University College London, it brought together 12 academic specialists in politics, law, sociology and history to examine what is at stake for the Irish and British governments, and for the electorates of Northern Ireland and Ireland who would make the decision. Referendums in both jurisdictions are grounded in the 1998 Belfast Agreement which obliges the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to call one there if a majority of 50 per cent plus one in favour appears likely.
That obligation and the agreement itself leave much unsaid about how referendums would be arranged, conducted and implemented. This report seeks to clarify why and when they would be called, how designed, whether they would be fairly regulated and on what franchise, and how sovereignty from the United Kingdom to a united Ireland would be transferred if that is the decision. These technical and procedural questions clearly involve both governments and require clear answers well ahead of decisions to invoke them, in the spirit of greater preparedness for potential change we have grown to expect.
Even more important politically is the report’s analysis of possible referendum configurations and which might be preferred according to criteria of legitimacy, stability, clarity, informed choice and inclusivity. The most important of these is between one that offers a clear model from the Irish Government of a united Ireland before the referendums and one that instead offers a constitutional process to decide on a model afterwards if voters say yes. This could be a really consequential choice between a unitary state or one in which Northern Ireland has devolved powers in areas like health, education and symbolism.
It involves a tradeoff between informed choice and inclusivity because Northern Ireland could or would not have a say in a prior model before the vote, whereas in the Republic voters would demand it. Such democratic dilemmas are now part of politics on this island.