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Referendums on the future of the island of Ireland should only be held with a clear plan for what follows. This is a key conclusion of the interim report from the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland, established by the UCL Constitution Unit.

The report examines the legal rules for referendums north and south of the border, and assesses different ways of designing them based on criteria of procedural legitimacy, stability, simplicity, informed choice and inclusivity. Three possible referendum configurations are identified as deserving further consideration. The authors are inviting further feedback ahead of a final report next year.

The Group was set up to examine how any future referendums on whether Northern Ireland would stay in the United Kingdom or become part of a united Ireland could best be designed and conducted. It takes no view on whether holding such referendums would be desirable or not, or what the outcome should be if referendums were to be held.

Instead, it considers overarching issues such as sequencing timescales, out of date rules, campaign spending and the quality of information available to voters during any campaign periods.

The Group comprises 12 academic experts from six universities in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Great Britain, and the United States: Queen’s University Belfast, Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin, Ulster University, University of Pennsylvania and University College London. It includes experts with a range of expertise spanning law, politics, history and sociology.

It has examined the issues in depth over the past year and gathered evidence from a wide range of groups and individuals. The Group is based at the UCL Constitution Unit, which has a long history of independent research into referendums in the UK and internationally.

Chair of the Working Group, Dr Alan Renwick (UCL Constitution Unit) said:

“We have embarked on this work not because we think referendums are imminent—we do not—but because the whole process needs to be thought through well in advance. The years of acrimony following the Brexit referendum illustrate the dangers of a vote called without adequate planning.

“To hold another referendum without a proper plan would risk the legitimacy of such a vote and political stability on the island of Ireland.”

Key findings and conclusions of the interim report:

  • Unification could come about only through referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
  • Planning should start in good time before referendums and be led by the two governments, working closely with the full range of actors in Northern Ireland, across the island of Ireland, and the UK.
  • The framework for holding a referendum in Northern Ireland is set down in the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. It stipulates that a majority of 50% + 1 would be required to change the status quo.
  • The ethos of consensual politics should, however, be followed in planning and organising the referendums, and in what comes after.
  • In deciding whether to call a referendum in Northern lreland, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must act with conspicuous care and transparent honesty and so maintain public trust. He or she would have to reflect on a range of evidence: notably election results, opinion polls – bearing in mind the reliability of different sorts of polling – and any votes in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The report makes suggestions on how to approach this judgment.
  • A referendum would have to be held in the South if the North voted in favour of unification, although the two referendums could be scheduled for the same day.
  • It would be for the Irish government to develop proposals for the form of a united Ireland. Either it could propose a model in advance of referendums, or it could propose a process through which a model would be worked out afterwards. However, it could not propose any changes to the form of a united Ireland between any referendum in the North and one in the South. If voters opted for unification, the British and Irish governments would negotiate the terms of the transfer of sovereignty. On all these matters, the governments should consult widely and seek as consensual an approach as possible.
  • Referendums north and south could come early in the process, before the details of a united Ireland had been worked out; or later, once a model for a united Ireland had been developed. The interim report contains examples of both approaches. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. No perfect solution is available.
  • The rules for referendum and election campaigns are badly out of date in both the UK and Ireland, and urgently need to be strengthened.

The Working Group is funded by the British Academy under its Humanities and Social Sciences Tackling the UK’s International Challenges programme, and by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.

The members of the Working Group are:

  • Dr Alan Renwick (Chair of the Working Group), University College London
  • Prof. Oran Doyle, Trinity College Dublin
  • Prof. John Garry, Queen’s University Belfast
  • Dr Paul Gillespie, University College Dublin
  • Prof. Cathy Gormley-Heenan, Ulster University
  • Prof. Katy Hayward, Queen’s University Belfast
  • Prof. Robert Hazell, University College London
  • Dr David Kenny, Trinity College Dublin
  • Prof. Christopher McCrudden, Queen’s University Belfast and University of Michigan
  • Prof. Brendan O’Leary, University of Pennsylvania and Queen’s University Belfast
  • Dr Etain Tannam, Trinity College Dublin
  • Alan Whysall, University College London, and former civil servant

Professor Cathy Gormley-Heenan (Professor of Politics and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Ulster University, and Working Group member), said:

“Our Working Group is focused on the procedures as opposed to the politics of a referendum. We just want to help ensure that, if a referendum does happen at some point, it can be conducted fairly and robustly. We think it is really valuable to have worked through these issues, so that people can see what might be involved.”

Alan Whysall (former senior civil servant in the Northern Ireland Office, Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Constitution Unit, and Working Group member) said,

“Provision for referendums on unity is in the Agreement, and the law may require one at some point – though we make no assumption it’s inevitable. But there is little in the Agreement about what happens next, or what a united Ireland would look like. It’s right therefore to consider the many issues, sometimes very difficult, that arise. Indeed there is already vigorous debate about them. It needs to be properly informed, and comprehensive, and we hope our report will contribute to that.”

Professor Oran Doyle (Trinity College Dublin, and Working Group member) said,

“Taking part in the Working Group has been a real education for all of us. There are no easy answers to the question of how any future referendums on the unification question would best be conducted—all of the options have strengths and weaknesses. We have set those out dispassionately in the report. We’re keen now to hear from others about what they think.”

Professor Katy Hayward (Queen’s University Belfast, and Working Group member) said,

“Participating in the Working Group has really brought home to me the extent to which existing rules for referendums in the UK and Ireland are not fit for purpose. Referendums on the unification question would present voters with a truly momentous choice. The rules in both countries must be brought properly up to date to prevent that choice from being undermined by misinformation, unfair campaign spending, or other forms of manipulation.”

The interim report is a consultative document and the Group would welcome responses from political parties, NGOs, experts, and the general public by 18 January 2021.

In particular, they seek to know whether people agree or disagree with any of the interim conclusions; whether there are important matters that have been missed; whether any one of the referendum configurations is preferred, or there are others that should be considered; and whether there are any other points where their reasoning requires development or clarification.

Read the Interim Report

Read the Interim Report's Executive Summary