Ireland has pioneered the use of assemblies, made up of randomly selected voters, in political deliberation. Successive State-sponsored citizens’ assemblies have involved politicians directly, as in 2011, or linked into parliamentary decision-making, as with the equal rights and abortion referendums in 2016 and 2018. These innovations are now a routine part of our political life.
The authors of this article recently organised a deliberative forum on constitutional futures. It was composed of a cross-section of 50 citizens of the Republic, broadly representative of the wider population on a range of demographic criteria. It was a mini-citizens’ assembly. We found a super-majority of participants strongly favoured Northern Ireland uniting with Ireland rather than staying in the United Kingdom.
Given the choice between two feasible models of Irish unification most preferred an integrated model in which Northern Ireland would be dissolved to a model in which Northern Ireland becomes a devolved entity within a united Ireland.
Participants would also much prefer to have detailed knowledge of which model is going to be applied before voting in a referendum. After deliberation, however, they moved sharply from wanting a referendum vote within two years to preferring a five- to 10-year time frame.
Having found that participants strongly preferred Irish unification to the status quo, we then focused on examining people’s views on the two most feasible possible models of Irish unity, if Ireland’s Constitution and the Belfast Agreement continue to constrain outcomes.
Before the deliberation, participants preferred the integrated model to the devolved NI model, scoring the former 5.2 on a 1-7 support scale, and the latter at 3.8. The participants continued to prefer the integrated over the devolved NI model after deliberation, indicating robust preferences. Some felt, however, that recognising a devolved Northern Ireland could be a useful compromise, a transitional step towards an integrated Ireland.
Participants were surprised to learn there are different possible versions of a united Ireland.
Delivery of a single consistent and comprehensive economic, health and education policy across the whole island was seen as an important and very sensible beneficial feature of the integrated model. Political symbols, flags, political identities and policing were recognised as complex issues requiring time to negotiate.
We also examined people’s views on questions of process. At what point should the particular model of Irish unity under consideration be specified – before any referendum or after the referendums (if there is a pro-unification result)? Discussion led to a substantial increase in support for specifying the particular model of a united Ireland on offer before any referendum: 28 out of the 50 participants thought this was a good idea before our forum while 42 out of 50 did so after discussion.
And when, if ever, should the referendums be held? After deliberation, there was a sharp decrease in support for holding an immediate referendum within two years (a decline from 24 participants to three participants), and substantially increased support for a five- to 10-year time frame (from 22 to 43 participants).
Participants displayed strong awareness of how Brexit has affected Ireland, North and South. They agreed that the ill-defined choices in the UK’s 2016 referendum on EU membership should be avoided in referendums on unification. This Irish public was keen on preparation, and deliberation long before the referendums.
If Irish policymakers decide that keeping a devolved Northern Ireland is a wise pathway, they will need to prepare the Irish public
One problem is that unionist leaders are reluctant to engage on which model is best until they have lost. It would be better if they engaged, but our participants thought that the South should nevertheless define a specific model of unification before the future referendums rather than having a simple vote on the principle – leaving everything to be decided by a future constitutional convention.
An Irish government that acted in line with the considered views of the citizens in our forum would explicitly indicate, significantly before any referendum, that an integrated united Ireland would follow from affirmative referendums in favour of unification.
The Irish Government – and the Opposition parties – should be conscious of the arguments which our participants, upon considered reflection, found persuasive: the dangers of people not knowing exactly what they are voting for; and the danger of a model of a united Ireland emerging, a devolved Northern Ireland in a united Ireland, with much less support and enthusiasm among citizens of the existing Republic than the integrated model.
If Irish policymakers eventually decide that retaining a devolved Northern Ireland is a wise pathway into unification, even perhaps as a transitional arrangement, then they will need to prepare the Irish public for what many of them would regard as an unwelcome surprise.
Our participants favour broader, inclusive, and all-island conversations on Irish unification. There is overwhelming support for North-South co-operation. Reconciliation in the North is similarly backed. Both are combined strongly with support for starting “detailed preparation for a possible referendum on Irish unity which may be held by 2030”.
We believe privately organised deliberative events and citizens’ assemblies have a valuable role to play in such preparation for potential constitutional change, whether organised North or South, linked, or on an all-island basis. This event was a significant contribution to that discussion.
John Garry is professor of political behaviour in Queen's University Belfast. Dr Paul Gillespie directs the constitutional futures after Brexit project in UCD-IBIS. Brendan O'Leary is Lauder professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, and Fulbright fellow at National University of Ireland Galway. The research findings are being launched in a joint online seminar today, registration available at: https://www.ucd.ie/ibis/newsandevents/
The forum was composed of a cross-section of 50 citizens of the Republic, broadly representative of the wider population on a range of demographic criteria. It took place online for three hours on April 24th, 2021.
The participants listened to expert presentations, provided in short videos, and engaged in deliberative discussions after each presentation. Quantitative evidence, generated from a survey of participants conducted before and after the deliberations, enabled us to identify views before and after briefings and discussion, and let us assess whether learning about and reflecting on the models and processes led to opinion shifts.
Qualitative evidence from the transcripts of the lively and engaged discussions was gathered, helping to unpack why some people’s views remained constant, and others changed. Most participants felt better and more fully informed after the deliberations. There was a nearly unanimous feeling that everyone showed respect for the views of others and had ample opportunity to air their own.