Discussing the organization of Unity referendums. Academics in London, Dublin and Belfast show the way. Will the politicians follow suit?

In dealing with the existential core of politics in the north and south of Ireland, a working group of academics has long dealt with the questions of the referendums on Irish unity and submitted a modest proposal in the form of an “interim report”. But unlike Swift’s biting satire, her approach is an impeccably rational approach to procedural issues and the broad context for holding twin, if not entirely simultaneous, referenda.

They recommend as the best option a model of what unity would look like – Dublin’s primary responsibility – and a closely coordinated plan for holding the pre-election referenda – crucially a joint British-Irish commitment. So far, so good. However, the political context on these islands is very volatile. The previously obsessively introverted problem of Irish unity has been changed by the external double blows of Brexit and Covid and the semi-external problem of the future of the British Union. If demand for a border poll peaked at around 50%, the prospect of unity could emerge worryingly quickly and dominate Oireachtas and Assembly politics for at least a full term.

Indeed, if the group were to act as the proxy for the three governments and many other parties, the process would go very smoothly. But that’s the easy part. Like soldiers looking cautiously over a trench parapet and expecting a hail of gunfire, the working group is now inviting answers. The policy is certainly more controversial than the report and may upset some of its recommendations.

The voting procedures are much easier to agree on than the form and substance of the unit. For the latter, the report offers several options. Despite the obvious difficulty in prescribing, it is a pity that they are so numerous.

The referendum in the north should include two decisions on one issue. The wording will be decisive. Will it soon refer to a government paper setting the conditions and distributing them to each budget, as was done in the 1998 referendum? or written on the ballot itself? In 98 the public had no trouble deciding. But wherever the election is described, an important distinction must be made between the traditional unionist concept of the Union, which emphasizes British sovereignty, which tends to alienate nationalists, and the reformed Union’s comprehensive terms under the GFA, the one Enjoy cross-community attraction.

The report reaffirms the 50% + 1 threshold for referendums and rightly pays union considerations to a super-majority consistent with the cross-community vote in the assembly. However, it is disappointing that the working group failed to take advantage of its three centered objectivities to move closer to the recommendations for calling a referendum in the north. If they can’t, who can? Would the trigger be pulled around the 50% threshold, since in this capacity the Foreign Minister is obliged to assess the result neutrally? In what period and how many surveys? Independently or on behalf of the UK Government? Are the questions a simple yes or no, or detailed and nuanced like the political attitudes section of the Life and Times surveys in Northern Ireland?

Public confidence in opinion polls and in UK Ministers is low, yet the Foreign Secretary’s discretion is opaque and almost absolute. It will be very difficult to keep it going. Better if the legal situation is understood to mean that he is acting on compelling advice from the Assembly and voting by a simple majority on the basis of clear manifest commitments in favor of the unity within a certain period of time. Admittedly, the Health for All system attempted to avoid this by removing the question from an assembly that ideally was concerned with making power-sharing work. But it does reflect the compelling political realities of today. It creates vital transparency and also reflects the necessary process in the Dail and enables parallel debates.

The report seems to imply the neutrality of the British government in the campaign and upfront. This is not necessarily the case. The legal obligation to simplify the process with strict impartiality does not preclude UK parties from promoting any of the desired outcomes. Although they play no role in the decision on Irish unity, they have a keen interest in Britain’s future. UK parties have taken different formal positions on Irish unity since the division. Why should they abandon them at a possible decision point?

The formal campaign period would have to be mandated synchronously north and south, and indeed across the UK. However, campaigns in various forms will last for years. When did it ever stop? I see no likelihood of an agreement to impose Purdah, except in the strictest sense of the specific prohibition of financial incentives from both governments, which would immediately remind of the rampant bribery of the policies that formed the unions in 1707 and 1801.

Unit or state? The policy for a model of unity is very similar to the existing reform agenda within NI, suggesting that a federal Ireland might be preferable. The debate about unity change is constant in the north, but much less so in the current republic, where a British-style NHS, for example, would bring about significant changes. A state is housed in the design of the GFA, would be easier to implement, and would retain a district role for trade unionists. All reforms of Irish policy in health and other matters would not be ruled out.

The reports suggest that violence or the threat of violence should not frustrate the implementation of either outcome in a referendum in the north. This is an important principle that all parties must assert in the run-up to the referendums, in line with the Health for All principle of “exclusively peaceful means” for policy management. However, the two governments should make discreet but extensive preparations, with UKG assuming primary responsibility, to counter the possibility of serious disruptions. However, there will almost certainly be no repeat of the events of 1912-1922. On the other hand, if concerns were raised about the possibility of violence in the event of a hard Brexit limit, would the threat of the prospect of a no-no lower constitutional limit be at all? And where are the ideas to counter a formal or informal boycott of trade unionists?

What is worrying is that the impact of a change of sovereignty on combating the legacy of the problems has not been taken into account. It’s unlikely to have been resolved within the decade.

Unity advocates could probably afford to lose a referendum in every jurisdiction if the vote on unity weren’t ridiculous. Principles for conducting a second series at a later date should be taken into account and will certainly be different from the first.

Possible scenarios with elephant traps are much more than discussed here. In order to achieve a certain coherence for the bitterly divided political parties and two sovereign governments on this issue, the working group has defined clear procedural principles and standards for political behavior. This is not a negligible achievement. But it’s not even the end of the beginning. The really tough phase begins when they get the answers to their humble proposal.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Spolight publisher; Political Editor BBC NI; Editor of the Current Affairs Committee of BBC Radio 4; Editor of Political and Parliamentary Programs, BBC Westminster; former London editor of the Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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