As the outworking of Brexit moves inexorably into its final stages, and the ‘Irish Sea border’ slowly becomes a reality, a new, largely overlooked thread of debate is likely to attract more attention: the implications of these changes for a referendum on Irish unity.
Recent calls for such a referendum — whether by parties such as Sinn Féin, or broad civic groups such as ‘Ireland’s Future’ — raise many political, legal and organisational questions. On December 3 Ireland’s Future offered a concise answer to some of these in a new booklet.
A few days earlier, a major academic report had addressed these issues at much greater length, and came to slightly different conclusions. Produced by the Constitution Unit in University College London (UCL), the Interim report on unification referendums on the island of Ireland runs to 238 pages.
The fruit of intense research over the past year by a dozen-strong team of British and Irish political scientists and constitutional lawyers chaired by Alan Renwick of UCL, this is one of the most important academic interventions in policy debate in Ireland in recent decades.
Preparing for a poll
The Good Friday agreement defined the mechanics of an Irish border referendum with clarity, but also with brevity. In Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State may trigger a poll at any time, and must do so if of the view that “a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”, provided that seven years have elapsed since any previous such poll.
But the agreement offers little further guidance as to procedure in such a constitutionally momentous process. Here the UCL report steps in. It offers answers — not always definitive ones — to a whole set of related complex questions about the decision-making process.
Some questions tackle the mechanics of triggering a referendum. What evidence of public opinion should the Secretary of State consider? What role should the Irish government play, and does it have a veto? Should the Northern Ireland referendum take place first, or simultaneously with that in the Republic, or does relative timing matter?
Other questions concern conduct of the vote. How should the question be worded? Should it be the same in the two jurisdictions? Should the referendum be timed for an early stage in the negotiation process, or should it await a detailed blueprint, so that people know what exactly they are voting on?
The report’s key recommendation urges meticulous preparation for a poll and its consequences: voters need a relatively detailed image of what a united Ireland would look like if they are to cast an informed vote, and the process needs to be balanced and even-handed, with free access to accurate information.
The politics of Irish unification
The report is no mere technical exercise in navigating the treacherous minefield of referendum voting procedures. It makes at least one key contribution to political debate. Brexit has presented a huge challenge to the Good Friday agreement since 2016. But the agreement has also been subverted by reinterpretation of a crucial rule in the referendum process, the notion of decision making by a simple majority.
The referendum arrangement was central to the negotiation of the Good Friday agreement. It offered unionists assurance that for as long as they retained majority support their position within the UK was secure. With opinion polls consistently showing massive Protestant and substantial Catholic support for the Union, at least until the implications of Brexit became obvious, this seemed like a safe long-term bet.
The arrangement also offered nationalists the prospect (but not the promise) of eventual Irish unity, should majority support for this be forthcoming. It is extremely unlikely that Sinn Féin would have signed up to the Good Friday agreement without this provision.
Several nationalist political leaders have subsequently distanced themselves from this central provision. Taoiseach Micheál Martin has indicated that a referendum is off the agenda for the next five years; two of his predecessors (Bertie Ahern and Leo Varadkar) argued that change should require a majority larger than 50 per cent; and a former Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister, the late Seamus Mallon, suggested that unionist consent to change should also be required.
The UCL report categorically rules out the requirement of any such kind of supermajority as a clear breach of the Good Friday agreement, which, it points out, was “unequivocal that the threshold in a referendum on the unification question in Northern Ireland would be a simple majority — 50 per cent +1 — of those casting a valid ballot”.
The UCL group claims, with justification, to be collectively strictly politically neutral — with no expectation of an imminent referendum, no view as to its desirability, and no expectation as to the outcome. But its message has inescapable political content. It not only offers invaluable practical advice to referendum planners here and in other geopolitically disputed territories; it has rescued a central plank of the Good Friday agreement — the principle of a simple majority referendum — from erosion to the point of disappearance.
John Coakley is a professor in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics, Queen’s University Belfast, and a fellow at the Geary Institute, University College Dublin.