IBIS part of major new project on Irish unification referendums

IBIS will be working with the Constitution Unit in University College London as well as  other  institutions in Dublin and Belfast on a major new investigation into how any future referendum on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland (often known as a ‘border poll’) would best be designed and conducted.

Such a vote is envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement. Under the Northern Ireland Act 1998, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is obliged to call one if a majority for a united Ireland appears likely. Recent developments have increased the chances that this condition could be met in the coming years. Yet no detailed public thinking has been done on what form the vote should take. Fundamental problems may therefore arise: a badly structured process could become chaotic, the results might not be accepted as legitimate, and there could be civil unrest.

The new project, led by UCL, is made possible by generous funding from the British Academy under its Humanities and Social Sciences Tackling the UK’s International Challenges programme, will convene a Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland. Comprising scholars with expertise in politics, law, sociology, and history, this will consult and deliberate over the coming year and produce a report. The members of the Working Group are:

  • from the Constitution Unit: Alan Renwick (project lead), Robert Hazell, and Alan Whysall
  • from University College Dublin: Paul Gillespie (IBIS)
  • from Queen’s University Belfast: John Garry, Katy Hayward, Christopher McCrudden, and Brendan O’Leary (also at the University of Pennsylvania)
  • from Ulster University: Arthur Aughey and Cathy Gormley-Heenan
  • from Trinity College Dublin: Oran Doyle, David Kenny, and Etain Tannam

Some of the questions that will be explored by the Working Group were set out in a background report written earlier this year by Unit Honorary Senior Research Associate at UCL, Alan Whysall. They cover referendums both north and south of the border and processes before, during, and after the vote itself. They include:

  • How would the process be triggered? What objective evidence should be used to gauge whether the majority of people in Northern Ireland might favour a united Ireland?
  • What options for Ireland’s and Northern Ireland’s future governance could be considered, and what implications would these have for the nature of the decision-making process? For example, could options for shared sovereignty be on the table?
  • How and where in the process should citizens be engaged in discussions about the options? Might citizens’ assemblies be employed, as has happened in Ireland recently on matters such as same-sex marriage and abortion?
  • Should a poll (only) be held before negotiations have taken place on the form that Irish unification would take, or should such a vote (also) be held once an agreement has been concluded? Would it be tenable to hold, as current legal provisions imply, a pre-negotiation poll in the North but not in the South, and a post-negotiation poll in the South but not in the North? If not, what alternatives are feasible?
  • How would the campaigns during the referendum be regulated? How should the ballot papers be designed? What provisions would be made to ensure that voters could make an informed choice free from unfair campaign practices?
  • What should be the qualifications for voting in border polls, North and South?

The Working Group expects to report in autumn 2020. Further details of the project and how to engage with it will be available in due course on its dedicated webpage.

The project will build on a wealth of expertise among the Working Group members, including the Constitution Unit’s recent projects on the role and conduct of referendums in the UK, the quality of information and discourse in election and referendum campaigns, and citizens’ assemblies.

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