The decision of the two governments to publish “ the basis of an agreement “ on a return to Stormont next week as recommended here and by others is very welcome. Publication will either expose to your judgement and mine the reasonableness or otherwise of whoever is holding out against agreement, or it will constitute the agreement itself. While an atmosphere of optimism among the parties is being fostered (no pun intended) in the sketchy reporting, there is nothing objective to suggest that gaps have yet been closed.
Meanwhile in the Irish Times, the Irishman who is UCL’s professor of Constitutional and European Law argues that the UK”s handling of the Brexit referendum offers a terrible guide for how to approach a border poll. Next Monday the deputy director of UCL’s Constitution Unit Alan Renwick talks at Queens about the Unit’s research project on a border poll which may feature a citizens’ assembly. Whether this ought to include unionists to be made valid is a moot point often discussed in Slugger and elsewhere.
On a border poll, McCrea writes:
… the problem is that, as with Brexit, Irish unity or Scottish independence would require detailed negotiations on the economic and institutional details.
It is hard to see either the DUP or British government engaging in such negotiations before a referendum lest concluding a decent deal would encourage voters to opt to leave the UK.
It will, therefore, likely be impossible to provide voters with detailed information in advance of a referendum vote.
One could have a two-referendum process where an in-principle decision triggers detailed negotiations whose outcome is then subject to a confirmatory referendum.
However, this may not overcome the problem. The UK government or the DUP may be tempted to take a very hard line in post-referendum negotiations in the hope of triggering a negative vote in the confirmatory vote. There are no easy solutions, but the status quo is not an option. The UK’s uncodified constitution meant that Brexiteers were able to win majority support for Brexit without spelling out what Brexit would mean.
Given the history of conflict these issues are particularly pressing in relation to a Border poll. A vote on Irish unity will stir emotions and raise fears. If these fears are to be managed and instability avoided, it will be necessary to devise systems and procedures to reassure voters that the process will not be hijacked by unrepresentative groups.
As the Brexit process has shown, the UK currently lacks any such procedures. Political stability in Ireland and Britain may depend on finding them.
It would be pinning a lot on any form of public consultation to devise procedures that would “ avoid instability.” Unlike social issues such as abortion or equal marriage which they were all too happy to devolve to citizens assemblies within certain limits, the Irish government would be certain to assume prime responsibility for conducting the debates on unity in the Republic after the preliminary explorations. Both governments will want to keep as much control as possible over such an existential matter.
The big problem here is that a border poll unlike Scottish Indyref2 does not require Westminster’s consent, nor even that of the local parties directly. It is the people’s call. How that call is registered is the responsibility of the British government and is still undeclared. The question is: should they set criteria for assessing public demand for a border poll before the two governments have reached agreement on the broad political context for holding complementary ” concurrent” referendums as the GFA prescribes? Or should they sit tight until we all learn whether the Stormont Assembly can function effectively for several years? If it does so, why risk disturbing the arrangement with plans for a border poll unless it is an agreed settled will? If it doesn’t, what do the two governments do then? Does making arrangements for unity seem like the appropriate response?
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London