How could a vote on the unification of Ireland play out?

Lisa O'Carroll
·5-min read

Brexit has shown the dangers of failing to plan fully for the consequences of referendums, so what would happen if we were to get one about unifying Ireland?

There appears to be no chance of political leaders on both sides in Northern Ireland buying into the kind of pre-designed outcomes a referendum would require. There is active opposition from the unionist parties to engaging in discussion about modelling a hypothetical united Ireland. “Why would we talk about unification? That would be like discussing our own suicide,” said one leading unionist politician. On the other side, Sinn Féin will not be advancing arguments for a permanent place in the UK. So the chances of both sides agreeing the terms of a vote appear slim to none.

But a group of 12 leading academics brought together by the Constitution Unit at University College London have spent the last two years pondering the big questions amid fears that a vote could happen almost by accident.

In a thumping 259-page report, Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, they ask how a border poll could be best designed and conducted.

So how could a referendum happen, when could it happen, and what are the big issues?

Who has the power to call a border poll?

The Belfast Good Friday agreement (BGFA) of 1998 gives the Northern Ireland secretary discretion to call a referendum at any point. However he is legally obliged to call one if there is a majority in Northern Ireland in favour of unification.

A poll should be called “if at any time it appears likely to him [sic] 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”.

Is this prosecutable? Yes, says Alan Renwick, the deputy director of UCL’s Constitution Unit and one of the lead authors in the working group’s report.

“This piece of the agreement is written in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. And therefore, it can be taken to court in the UK. Whether judges would be particularly keen to weigh in on this is another matter,” he notes.

How is a majority defined?

It is not defined. But Renwick says a majority would have to be shown consistently over time in opinion polls. “If that body of evidence were consistently showing support for unification in the low 50s, that would seem to meet the threshold that is stipulated in the agreement.” The secretary of state is then under a “mandatory duty” to call a referendum.

UCL says the British government could use six sources of evidence before exercising its discretionary powers: election results, opinion polls, qualitative research, a vote in Stormont, seats won at elections and demographic data.

Using the latter as a poll benchmark is something unionists fear. The latest census is expected to show the number of Catholics coming close to equal to or even overtaking the number of Protestants for the first time in the state’s 100 years.

What are the latest opinion polls showing?

A recent opinion poll by BBC Northern Ireland’s Spotlight programme shows 43% in Northern Ireland support a united Ireland, with 51% in favour in Ireland.

If a poll were held and the result was as close as the Brexit one, could unification happen?

Yes, says UCL. “A referendum should be called if a vote for unification appears likely, even if by a slender margin.”

“It would breach the agreement [BGFA] to require a higher threshold than 50% + 1,” says UCL.

However, the working group observed in detail the need for legitimacy for a border poll and the need for consensus espoused in the Good Friday agreement. If politics prevails then a simple majority won’t be enough. Consent would also be needed south of the border.

Where would parliament be in a united Ireland?

UCL outlines five constitutional options:

  • Devolved institutions retained in Northern Ireland but with sovereignty transferred from London to Dublin.

  • A single central legislature, likely to be in Dublin. Unionists would be likely to see this as a hostile takeover. “This model has been the historic preference of many Irish republicans, constitutional or otherwise. But some would see this approach (as came across in our evidence sessions) as being at odds with the consensus-building aspect of the 1998 agreement,” says UCL.

  • A federal state. This model “would avoid some of the governance complications of lopsided devolution. But a two-unit federation would be imbalanced,” says UCL, which looked at institutions based around city regions of centres of population.

  • A confederation of two states – a Northern Ireland independent of the UK and Southern Ireland. UCL found this “would less clearly meet the prescription of unity laid down by the 1998 agreement”. The post-Brexit status of Northern Ireland in or out of the EU could also require a referendum.

What about the question of staying in the union?

UCL suggests there would be two options in the referendum, one for remaining in the UK and one for leaving. “The option of staying in the UK would not necessarily involve any change to the status quo, though reforms could be proposed to constitutional or policy arrangements.”

Conclusion

A border poll is not inevitable even if Brexit made it part of the national conversation in Ireland.

While “the basic question of sovereignty is binary and majoritarian” UCL says, the peace deal also underlines the need to conform to the ethos of “reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust”, qualities not always abundant in the entrenched communities of Northern Ireland.