Report looks at referendums on Irish unification

A dozen experts, including Penn’s Brendan O’Leary, lay a framework for how any future unification vote can be fair and feasible.

Two green N1 highway signs stacked on top of each other show arrows pointing the way to Belfast in the top sign and the way to Dublin in the bottom sign, with Belfast to the left and Dublin to the right
A group of experts have issued a report on what would need to happen for a referendum on Irish unification to be fair and feasible.

A referendum on Irish unification is unlikely to happen anytime soon, but a group of experts has issued a report on what would be needed for such a vote to be fair and feasible. The Working Group included a dozen experts whose disciplinary ranges spanned political science, law, history, and sociology, and scholars in Great Britain and both parts of the island of Ireland. They include Penn’s Brendan O’Leary, Lauder Professor of Political Science, and Oran Doyle, professor in law at Trinity College Dublin and former visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. 

A virtual launch event for the Final Report of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the island of Ireland is being held Wednesday. Participants will discuss the Working Group’s analysis and conclusions and consider how debate on these issues is likely to develop.

Penn Today spoke with O’Leary and Doyle to get a sense of why such a report was needed at this moment and what should happen now.

Why was this working group formed? Why was this work needed?

O’Leary: The group was formed at the initiative of the Constitution Unit at University College London, funded by the British Academy. The Unit deliberately reached out to scholars in both parts of the island of Ireland—and to me at Penn—to ensure that a wide range of voices were heard. We engaged in extensive efforts to tap public opinion, with in-person and virtual meetings, especially in both parts of Ireland.

The U.K.’s referendum on leaving the European Union publicly advertised how badly referendums can be run, irrespective of one’s judgment of the result. In particular, those who voted ‘leave,’ the change option, had no genuine idea what they were voting for. The Working Group agreed it would be disastrous if that experience were to occur in future referendums over Irish unification, or reunification. There’s a debate over which of these expressions is appropriate. 

The U.K.’s vote to leave the E.U. had ominous consequences for the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Though that agreement has had its ups and downs, it has brought peace to the island. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the E.U. in 2016, but like Scotland its voters’ preferences were outnumbered by those of English ‘leavers.’

The U.K.’s decision, post-referendum, to leave the Customs Union and the Single Market created a huge problem, one that had barely been addressed during the ‘Brexit’ referendum. Should the new border functions run across the island of Ireland, restoring a hard partition? Or should those border functions be administered at ports and airports between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, thereby creating regulatory and customs borders down the Irish Sea and across the U.K.? 

We all know what option was chosen, but that hard-won diplomatic outcome remains in the balance.

Even had these questions not emerged, collectively we agreed that it was time to review the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement because it was evident to most of us that many in London, Dublin, and Belfast were inventing their own versions of that agreement or proposing radical modifications of it without adequate preparation. 

Not least, we thought we could provide a lasting public service because civil servants in Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Great Britain, for various reasons, are not currently permitted to discuss or prepare this work in any credible detail. One advantage of academia is that we do not have to obey governmental taboos. 

What are the main reasons that the debate around unification is happening at this time? 

O’Leary: Brexit, Brexit, Brexit is the first answer.  

The second is the slow transformation of Northern Irish politics. The Unionist majority, deliberately created in 1920, is no more, undermined by the demographic erosion of the proportion of cultural Protestants and the rise in the proportion of cultural Catholics, along with new immigrants from Europe and elsewhere.  

Northern Ireland now has three minorities. There are two large blocs: Irish nationalists who wish to see Irish reunification and Ulster Unionists who wish to keep the Union with Great Britain, as their names respectively suggest.  

But there is a third bloc which has grown in strength in recent years, partly because of European questions, ‘the others.’ Their voters are overwhelmingly in favor of the European Union and socially liberal. They are formally neutral on the future of the Union. Their voters would be swing voters in any future referendum in Northern Ireland, and pivotal. Many of them are enraged at the conduct of the Democratic Unionist Party which used its temporary power in the House of Common to support a ‘hard Brexit,’ despite that being a minority preference in Northern Ireland and palpably at odds with regional economic interests. The result is that we now have a unionist bloc split three ways and that in the next Assembly elections the party that is most ardently in favor of reunification, Sinn Féin, will likely be the largest party in Northern Ireland and will nominate the first minister. 

Lastly, the Republic of Ireland has been through major quiet transformations. Astonishingly richer than it used to be, it has been through a sustained and radical, albeit belated, burst of social liberalism. Ireland is no longer ruled by Rome. If it ever was, it is not now. It is a secular and democratic republic and firmly pro-European. 

Why is having a plan like this in place necessary?

O’Leary: Most of our co-authors would say we have not written a plan. We have written a careful brief to avoid anything like the Brexit referendum. Voters, North and South, will need to know, with reasonable certainty, what they are voting for or against. 

What we have done is to set out the legal and political requisites of conducting a fair referendum in the North and a matching one in the South. We have it clear that there will have to be a matching referendum in the South if key provisions in the Good Friday Agreement are to be part of a united Ireland. The Southern referendum could be held on the same day as the Northern one, but there are also good reasons to hold it later as long as citizens vote on substantially the same question. 

We have also made it clear that the rule for a change in sovereignty is 50% plus one, because of the text of the Good Friday Agreement, international conventions, British precedents, and the reasoning of the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body. 

One of our key points is that the Government of Ireland must think carefully about when to begin preparation for possible referendums.

The group took no collective view on the merits of the union or of reunification. We had supporters of each possibility among our number, and our group included people who did not favor early preparations. 

It is understood that such a vote might be legally required in the not-too-distant future. Why would that be the case? What’s a realistic timeframe for such a vote and why? 

Doyle: The decision whether to call a referendum rests with the United Kingdom’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland. He or she may call one at any time but is obliged to call a referendum if it appears likely to him or her that a majority in Northern Ireland would vote in favor of unification. 

We review the debates about the evidence that might inform the secretary of state. We express concern about the possibility of a premature referendum being called, but such a premature call might be questioned before the courts. If we take demographic and electoral change into consideration, then holding the Northern referendum on or just before 2030 seems a distinct possibility, though the group did not make predictions in this regard.

What issues would likely arise in any referendums? 

Doyle: One set of issues concerns the constitutional structure of a newly unified state. At the moment, Northern Ireland has devolved government within the U.K.: its own assembly and executive with limited powers. Would those arrangements continue if Northern Ireland were part of a united Ireland? Or would Northern Ireland be fully integrated into the existing, highly centralized Irish state?  

For many people, however, social issues will be more important. Will education and health services be merged, and, if so, which model would be followed? There are also financial issues about the transfer of assets and liabilities from the U.K. to Ireland, as well as issues about coastal waters, fishing zones, etc. Some people would say this list of issues is too technocratic. The creation of a united Ireland would be a huge constitutional moment in which everything could be reimagined. That may be the case, but these sorts of issues will have to be addressed in one way or another. 

Are there current poll numbers about unification that indicate it could go one way or the other?

O’Leary: Surveys and internet polls give different results regarding the proportion who favor a united Ireland. It is fair to say that there has been a recent upward tick in support for a referendum and unification, but neither surveys nor polls could be used to justify the calling of a referendum today. 

Election results are more interesting to politicians—real voters voting. Ulster Unionists no longer have a majority of the members of Parliament elected to the Westminster Parliament from Northern Ireland. In the upcoming Northern Ireland Assembly elections, it remains to be seen whether unionists will cease to be the largest bloc. The tectonic plates have shifted.  

Is any group in particular pushing for a vote, in either place? 

O’Leary: Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness called for a referendum on unification shortly after the Brexit vote. The party’s current leader, Mary Lou McDonald, has now tempered the party’s position: She urges that preparation should begin now. Sinn Féin is the leading party of Northern nationalists and, in many polls, now the leading party in the Republic, but it has little prospect of achieving a Southern majority on its own. It may lead a future coalition government. We both observe much greater willingness to discuss the subject in the South. That was not so for a long time. 

What’s the most important thing for people to take away from your report, and also from the current situation regarding unification?

O’Leary: The message ‘prepare for the possibility of a referendum,’ is in first place. Achieve widespread clarity on fair procedures and fair questions and fair and transparent franchise rules. Don’t change anything in the Good Friday Agreement unless all parties that made it agree to the changes; any change should comply with its provisions. Think long and hard about the regulation of the possible referendums, to avoid external interference, and to ensure they are administered with rigorous impartiality.  

For the government of Ireland the message is: You may have to choose, sooner than expected, between offering a model of a united Ireland or setting out a process that would occur after a vote for reunification, and you have to decide when to prepare.

We wrote our report to be helpful to people in 2030 as well as today. It will be interesting to see how well we have foreseen difficulties, addressed possible solutions, and what we have missed. Our reward will be to be read.