The question of Irish unity

A basic proposal or a detailed model?

Sir, – Oran Doyle (“Addressing the question of unity”, Books, September 3rd) supports simultaneous reunification referendums in the North and South. He also recommends that the referendums address two questions: the principle of reunification and the model of a united Ireland. On the latter point, he notes that the “terms of unification must be fixed before the referendum in the North” and that “voters at any unification referendum should be presented with a model of a united Ireland, worked out to the maximal extent possible”.

The idea that border polls are votes on the detailed model of a united Ireland was first broached by the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, of which Prof Doyle was a member. The working group’s interim report (November 2020) and final report (May 2021) identified a variant of the “model approach” as one of its three favoured referendum configurations. According to Prof Doyle, the model of a united Ireland that is on the referendum ballots will address, among other things, “issues of identity, constitutional structure, social and economic policy and public administration.”

The model approach has two glaring problems, which neither Prof Doyle nor the working group satisfactorily address. First, it violates the Belfast Agreement. The Belfast Agreement effectively says, and all its predecessor documents presume, that referendums are on the principle of reunification. There is not a hint anywhere that border polls are about detailed models. Second, the model approach bestows a comprehensive veto on the North – the national symbols of a united Ireland and its constitutional form, political structures and policy directions cannot be set without the agreement of the North. Prof Doyle and the working group conjure the model approach out of thin air. The Irish people, not a collection of academics, should decide whether to grant the North a powerful veto over the form and content of a united Ireland.

There are different ways to ensure that referendum voters are informed of the choice on offer – the Scottish example comes to mind – without violating the Belfast Agreement and usurping the people’s right to set the terms and conditions of their governance. – Yours, etc,



Toronto, Canada.

Sir, – I agree with Oran Doyle’s view that “any unification referendum should be presented with a model of a united Ireland, worked out to the maximal extent possible. It is the responsibility of the Irish Government to prepare that model through a process of research, consultation and consensus building.”

Keeping all political parties at arm’s length from this process would also go a long way towards a successful, peaceful outcome. A model which has something in it for everyone stands a much better chance of being supported by nationalists and unionists. For example, nationalists might regard a single constitution for the whole island as a major gain whilst retention of a semi-autonomous government in Belfast might be seen as the minimum basis for an agreement by unionists. Unionists might also welcome Ulster reunification.

In the interests of balance and to address the highly centralised nature of government in Ireland, which Prof Doyle has drawn attention to elsewhere, equivalent assemblies should be set up in Connacht, Leinster and Munster with the national parliament in Dublin overseeing devolved powers with respect to, for example, public services, development and planning. Non-nationalist and non-unionist voters might place the emphasis on enhanced human rights, secularisation of education and health service, and environmental issues. There is also the issue of building trust to ensure minorities are neither discriminated against nor ignored or that parties with rich donors have an unfair advantage at elections.

An independent, government-funded mechanism that requires political parties to meet criteria with regards to membership throughout the island and across the sectarian divide, could also be used to enforce a stringent code of practice with regards to use of social media and truthfulness.

Were a referendum for a new Irish constitution to be successful, it is difficult to see any merit in any party harping on about early 20th-century constitutional history. The creation of new parties with a mix of new and old faces, based on left right socioeconomic and environmental policies would become the norm. Nothing short of a new beginning. What an opportunity. – Yours, etc,



Co Down.