The holding of referendums on Irish unity on both sides of the Border without a proper plan for how to handle the possible outcomes could seriously threaten political stability on the island, a study has concluded.
The report, published by University College London, by a working group of 12 academics based in Ireland, Britain and the United States points to the acrimony that has followed the 2016 Brexit vote in the UK as it warns against the risk of failing to assess the potential repercussions.
“To hold another referendum without a proper plan would risk the legitimacy of such a vote and political stability on the island of Ireland,” says Dr Alan Renwick, chairman of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland.
The group was set up to examine how any future referendums on Northern Ireland remaining in the UK or becoming part of a united Ireland could best be designed and conducted.
“The political context of Northern Ireland is an extraordinarily sensitive one and what is problematic in Great Britain with Brexit could potentially be more serious still in Northern Ireland,” said Dr Renwick.
The academics offer no view on what planning should start now or what the outcomes should be if the votes were held, nor do not they see a public desire for a referendum in the North or an appetite for the vote within the UK government.
“We see a referendum as possible in the future, which is why we think this work is important, but we certainly don’t think it is imminent or inevitable,” Dr Renwick said.
Brexit, which Northern Ireland voted against in the 2016 vote, has intensified the debate on a united Ireland. Sinn Féin has called for a “Border poll” to be held on the question in the wake of the UK’s vote.
The report says unification could arise only through referendums on both sides of the Border and these could be held on the same day. The votes could come relatively early in the planning stages, before the details of a united Ireland had been worked out, or later, only after a plan had been developed, they say.
It says the Irish government would be required under constitutional law to hold a unification referendum in the South if a referendum in the North passed. The government could not propose any changes to the form of a united Ireland between the votes in the two jurisdictions.
Recommending a process that is fair and “rigorously impartial”, the academics believe the conduct rules for referendums are crucial but warned that the rules for referendum and election campaigns are “badly out of date in both the UK and Ireland, and urgently need to be strengthened”.
“This would be particularly important for referendums on the momentous unification question, where voters must be protected from misinformation and have access to high-quality information,” the group concludes.
The academics say the Northern Ireland secretary has “broad discretionary power” to call a referendum and could schedule a ballot if there is an appetite for a vote on unification “even if by a slender margin”. They suggest that a vote should take place within three years, if it is called.
They conclude that it would be a breach of the Belfast Agreement if there were a higher threshold than 50 per cent plus one for approving a unification vote, “but the ethos of consensual politics should be upheld as far as possible”.
Legislation would be required in Dublin and London giving effect to the votes in favour of unification as well as fixing the date of unification and the transfer of sovereignty from London to Dublin.
“If the Oireachtas legislated for unification while Westminster did not, Northern Ireland would become disputed territory,” the report says, an eventuality that would be “highly desirable” to avoid.
The academics say there would need to be details decided on what a united Ireland would look like if unification was voted for, including decisions on whether devolved institutions in the North would be retained, whether a united Ireland would be a unitary, centralised state or a federal or confederal state with Northern Ireland being an independent sovereign state.