Democracies govern in the name of ‘We the People’ and referendums appear as the most direct way of involving the people in self-government.

Deliberating Constitutional Futures

Deliberating Constitutional Futures

Democracies govern in the name of ‘We the People’ and referendums appear as the most direct way of involving the people in self-government.

Amidst fears that the public are becoming disenchanted with representative democracy and de-aligned from political parties, referendums offer one route to re-engage the people in politics.

At the same time referendums carry important risks. There are many questions about the technical operation of referendums, perhaps especially in a country like the UK lacking a codified constitution and tradition of direct democracy. The wording of a referendum is vital to get right. And referendums are not necessarily conducive to democratic deliberation. The discourse around a referendum may arouse tensions and incite incivility. They represent the risk of a majoritarian solution in a context where minorities may feel marginalised.

Perhaps the most sensitive of these efforts to consult ‘We the People’ are precisely in those situations where the very identity of the people themselves is in question. A possible referendum is part of the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement, as part of a nuanced package of measures to resolve the protracted conflict in the divided society of Northern Ireland. The Agreement recognises the right of the people of Northern Ireland to be Irish or British or both and recognises their right to decide whether to remain a part of the United Kingdom or to join Ireland. One of the unintended consequences of the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum has been to increase the likelihood of such a ‘border poll’.

The stakes in any such referendum would be high. For the people of Northern Ireland it would mean re-joining the European Union (assuming the UK leaves in the interim). For Ireland it would imply constitutional change. And there is the risk of increased tensions among Northern Ireland’s divided and segregated society and possible unrest or violence.

These issues have a special historical and political resonance in the context of Northern Ireland, but they are not uniquely Northern Irish. It is important to reflect on international and comparative learning to consider how to conduct a border poll. In particular how could a border poll be conducted in a way that encourages deliberation and the genuine participation of people across society and across the divisions of this society? This workshop brings together experts on referendums internationally and within the different jurisdictions in these islands to reflect on the past and prepare for the future.

9am to 9.50am Tea and Coffee
9.50am to 10am Introductions and Housekeeping Rory O’Connell
10am to 11am

International perspectives on referendums and constitutional questions

Chair: Prof Brice Dickson, School of Law, Queen’s University of Belfast
Prof Aoife O’Donoghue,  Law School, Durham University
Prof Rory O’Connell, Transitional Justice Institute and Law, Ulster University

11am to 11.15am Break
11.15am to 12.15pm

Ireland – Reflections on the Convention and on the Referendums

Chair: Dr Anne Smith, School of Law and Transitional Justice Institute, Ulster University
Dr Conor O’Mahony Faculty of Law, University College Cork
Dr Jane Suiter, Dublin City University, Director of the Institute for Future Media and Journalism (FuJo)

12.15pm to 1.15pm

Scotland and Wales

Chair: Ciaran White, School of Law, Ulster University
Dr Silvia Suteu, Faculty of Law, University College London
Prof Richard Wyn Jones, Director of Cardiff University's Wales Governance and Dean of Public Affairs

1.15pm to 2.15pm Lunch
2.15pm to 4.15pm

Northern Ireland Roundtable

Chair: Dr Catherine O’Rourke, School of Law and Transitional Justice Institute, Ulster University
Prof Cathy Gormley Heenan, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Ulster University
Prof Colin Harvey, Professor of Human Rights Law, Queen’s University of Belfast
Alan Whysall, University College London
Dr Fidelma Ashe, Transitional Justice Institute and ASPS, Ulster University


Eilish Rooney and Rory O’Connell

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09:00AM to 04:15PM

Belfast Campus, Ground Floor

Rory O'Connell