Referendums on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future ’unwise’ without a clear plan

It would be highly unwise for referendums on the constitutional future of Ireland to be called without a clear plan for what follows, concludes the final report by the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, established by the UCL Constitution Unit.

The report seeks to map out how any referendums on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status would best be conducted through the framework of the Good Friday/Belfast 1998 Agreement, focusing on the legal rules north and south, and on the practicalities.

It looks mainly at procedural rather than political questions: how a referendum would be initiated, how many referendums there would be, how they would be sequenced, campaign spending rules, the voting threshold, the role of the UK and Irish governments, the voting franchise, and more.

The Working Group assessed dozens of possible referendum configurations and identifies three warranting further consideration, based upon criteria of procedural legitimacy, stability, clarity, informed choice and inclusivity.

The Group takes no view on whether holding such referendums would be desirable or not, or what the outcome should be if referendums were held. While the Working Group does not think that referendums are imminent, the years of acrimony over Brexit highlight the real dangers of calling a vote without adequate advance planning. 

The Working Group is based at the UCL Constitution Unit, which has a long history of independent research into referendums in the UK and internationally. It comprises 12 academic experts from six universities in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Great Britain, and the United States: Queen’s University Belfast, Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin, Ulster University, University of Pennsylvania and University College London. The expertise of the Group’s members spans law, politics, history and sociology.

Dr Alan Renwick, Chair of the Working Group, and Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit at UCL (University College London) said:  "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.

"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."

Professor Oran Doyle (Trinity College Dublin) said: " Our Report interprets the Belfast / Good Friday Agreement to identify the legal parameters for any unification process. We conclude that unification would require referendum approval, north and south. These referendums need not be simultaneous, but must occur close in time, and the voters in each referendum must vote on effectively the same proposals. The threshold for approval in each referendum would be a simple majority of those voting on the day.

"If voters in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland approved unification, then unification must occur. It cannot be conditional on any subsequent vote. Moreover, Ireland and the UK must each respect the outcome of the referendums, irrespective of what the other state does."

The Group gathered evidence from a wide range of groups and individuals over the last 18 months, including a large public consultation exercise last summer. It published an interim report in November, which was described by Professor of Politics and International Relations at Queen’s University Belfast John Coakley, as ’ one of the most important academic interventions in policy debate in Ireland in recent decades ’ . The extensive feedback received on this interim report confirmed many of the Group’s initial conclusions and informed the Group’s final analysis.

The Working Group’s findings serve as the essential reference point to inform public debate.

Key findings and conclusions of the report:

  • Unification could come about only through referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.    
  • Planning would need to start in good time before any referendums are held
  • Planning needs to be led by the UK and Irish governments, working closely with the full range of actors in Northern Ireland, across the island of Ireland, and the UK.   
  • The framework for holding a referendum in Northern Ireland is set down in the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. It stipulates that a majority of 50% + 1 would be required to change the status quo.  
  • The ethos of consensual politics should, however, be followed in planning and organising the referendums, and in what comes after.
  • The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must call a referendum if it appears likely to him or her that a majority would vote in favour of unification. In making that assessment, the Secretary of State must act with rigorous impartiality, conspicuous care, and transparent honesty. He or she would have to reflect on a range of evidence: election results, opinion polls - bearing in mind the reliability of different sorts of polling - and any votes in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The report makes suggestions on how to approach this judgment so as to maintain public trust.
  • A referendum would have to be held in the South if the North voted in favour of unification, although the two referendums could be scheduled for the same day.
  • It would be for the Irish government to develop proposals for the form of a united Ireland: including whether it should be a unitary or federal state, how it should be financed, the nature of the health service, education and other public services.
  • The Irish government could propose a model in advance of referendums, or a process through which a model would be worked out afterwards. But it could not propose any changes between a 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. On all these matters, the governments should consult widely and seek as consensual an approach as possible.
  • Referendums north and south could come early in the process, before the details of a united Ireland had been worked out; or later, once a model for a united Ireland had been developed. The report contains examples of both approaches. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. No perfect solution is available.
  • The rules for referendum and election campaigns are badly out of date in both the UK and Ireland, and urgently need to be strengthened.

The Working Group is funded by the British Academy, and by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.

The members of the Working Group are:

  • Dr Alan Renwick (Chair of the Working Group), University College London
  • Prof. Oran Doyle, Trinity College Dublin
  • Prof. John Garry, Queen’s University Belfast
  • Dr Paul Gillespie, University College Dublin
  • Prof. Cathy Gormley-Heenan, Ulster University
  • Prof. Katy Hayward, Queen’s University Belfast
  • Prof. Robert Hazell, University College London
  • Dr David Kenny, Trinity College Dublin
  • Prof. Christopher McCrudden, Queen’s University Belfast and University of Michigan
  • Prof. Brendan O’Leary, University of Pennsylvania and Queen’s University Belfast
  • Dr Etain Tannam, Trinity College Dublin
  • Alan Whysall, University College London, and former civil servant

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