How to hold a referendum on Irish unity

Plan must be agreed before any decision made to call referendums in North and Republic

The choice  would be between Northern Ireland staying in the UK or choosing a united Ireland. The future of the UK is uncertain, given the growing demand for Scottish independence, which could feed in to any campaign, including to the willingness of British governments to call a referendum. So could the prospect of the North rejoining the EU in a united Ireland. Photograph: Brian O’Leary/RollingNews.ie

The choice would be between Northern Ireland staying in the UK or choosing a united Ireland. The future of the UK is uncertain, given the growing demand for Scottish independence, which could feed in to any campaign, including to the willingness of British governments to call a referendum. So could the prospect of the North rejoining the EU in a united Ireland. Photograph: Brian O’Leary/RollingNews.ie

 

Planning by the Irish and British governments for possible future referendums on Irish unification would be an essential condition of their legitimacy and stability. A plan should be agreed by the time any decision is made to call referendums in Northern Ireland and the Republic. This is the central finding of a significant report, the first of its kind, examining how any future referendums on unification would best be designed and conducted.

The Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, chaired by Alan Renwick of the constitution unit, University College London, is made up of academic specialists in politics, law, history and sociology from Belfast, Dublin, London and Philadelphia, including the authors of this article. The report can be downloaded from their website.

The group is neither for nor against referendums or unification – and we believe neither is imminent. Our report rather maps out and analyses the possible pathways and procedures involved in calling referendums, filling out gaps in the 1998 Belfast Agreement which specifies the decision.

The report states, reflecting on the 2016 Brexit referendum example, that `it would be highly unwise for referendums to be called without a clear plan for the processes of decision, working closely with the full range of actors in Northern Ireland, across the island of Ireland, and the UK`

The group received evidence from politicians, former civil servants and civil society actors in Northern Ireland, Ireland and Britain, reflecting different perspectives and ideologies.

This interim report invites further responses to its findings so the final version next spring can be more comprehensive. It argues that such preparatory independent research performs a public service which deserves support.

The Belfast Agreement stipulates that if “at any time it appears likely” to a Northern Ireland secretary of state that a majority of those voting in Northern Ireland “would express a wish for a united Ireland”, they are obliged to call a referendum – and this is in addition to a discretionary right also specified.

Determining whether a majority might support a united Ireland requires reliable and impartial evidence over a period of time. Various ways of assessing the situation are examined, including elections, a vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly, surveys, opinion polls and demographic shifts. The report concludes it cannot prescribe the exact weight that should be attached to any one type of evidence

For constitutional reasons a referendum would have to be held in the Republic too. It would have to be concurrent – though not necessarily simultaneous – with the vote in the North.

Highly sensitive

Every issue related to a referendum decision would be highly sensitive. Preserving legitimacy of the process would depend highly on making it clear there is a level playing field with no one group holding undue influence. The report examines the legal rules for referendums North and South of the Border and assesses different ways of designing the votes, based on procedural legitimacy, stability, simplicity, informed choice and inclusivity.

Determining whether a majority might support a united Ireland requires reliable and impartial evidence over a period of time. Various ways of assessing the situation are examined, including elections, a vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly, surveys, opinion polls and demographic shifts. The report concludes it cannot prescribe the exact weight that should be attached to any one type of evidence.

The report states, reflecting on the 2016 Brexit referendum example, that “it would be highly unwise for referendums to be called without a clear plan for the processes of decision, working closely with the full range of actors in Northern Ireland, across the island of Ireland, and the UK”.

Such a plan would provide for: when referendums North and South would be called; their design and the processes preceding and following them; the timing and terms on which sovereignty would transfer if that were the option chosen by voters; the form a united Ireland would take; and any changes to the UK union if the vote was for the status quo.

It would be for the Irish government to develop proposals for the form of a united Ireland. Either it could propose a model in advance of referendums, or it could propose a process through which a model would be worked out afterwards.

However, under the concurrence rule, it could not propose any changes to the form of a united Ireland between any referendum in the North and one in the South. If voters opted for unification, the British and Irish governments would negotiate the terms of the transfer of sovereignty. They should consult widely and seek as consensual an approach as possible.

The report recognises that the choice in both referendums would be between Northern Ireland staying in the UK or choosing a united Ireland. The future of the UK is uncertain, given the growing demand for Scottish independence, which could feed in to any campaign, including to the willingness of British governments to call a referendum.

So could the prospect of the North rejoining the European Union in a united Ireland.

British-Irish co-operation would be essential in managing a referendum process. How that co-operation is managed is a decision for the governments. The primacy of the Belfast Agreement framework implies that the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference would be an obvious and appropriate forum to manage intergovernmental referendum planning issues, with extensive consultation. However, a new bilateral institution could fulfil an equivalent role.

If unification was approved, there would be a vast number of policy issues to decide: financial issues especially given the large UK subvention of Northern Ireland; policing; health services; the rights of minorities, in this context a British minority, in a united Ireland; symbolic issues such as the Commonwealth, the flag and anthem, education systems and history curricula; amalgamating the Police Service of Northern Ireland with the Garda Síochána, or keeping the PSNI under a devolved Northern government.

Overall, the interim report holds no view on the desirability of unification, but it provides clarity on the issues that would be raised by a unification referendum.

Many of the decisions would be political – here, the group identifies the options, but without making a judgment. Other issues are legal and/or procedural and the report does provide guidance, so that informed choices could be made. The report is a timely and considered approach to some of the most sensitive issues that may be faced by these islands in years to come.

Etain Tannam is associate professor international peace studies in Trinity College Dublin. Dr Paul Gillespie is deputy director of the Institute for British-Irish Studies in University College Dublin and leads its research project on constitutional futures after Brexit

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