Academic working group launches public consultation on unification referendums on the island of Ireland.

The Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland is today launching a public consultation asking people for their views on the prospect of a referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. The group is neither for nor against such a referendum – it is simply seeking to clarify the process. This post introduces the group and sets out some of the key questions it is asking. You can access the survey by clicking here.

What is the Working Group?

The Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland is a group of researchers based at universities in Belfast, Dublin, London, and the United States, coordinated by the Constitution Unit at University College London. The members are experts in politics, law, sociology, and history – you can find them listed on the Working Group’s webpage.

The Working Group is independent of all governments and political parties. We are entirely neutral on whether a unification referendum should be held, and on what the outcome should be. The group is generously funded by two charitable bodies. It builds on work conducted last year by the Constitution Unit’s Alan Whysall.

Why has the group been created?

The Working Group is examining how any future referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future would best be run. This would be a referendum – sometimes called a ‘border poll’ – to decide whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or become part of a united Ireland.

A referendum like this could occur in the future and is envisaged in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement under certain circumstances. Some people are campaigning for it to happen in the coming years, while others are arguing against. Either way, the Working Group recognises the importance of planning for the possibility: failure to work out how a referendum would be conducted before one was called could be very destabilising.

Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland from Department of Political Science on Vimeo.

What is the public consultation about?

We are launching a public consultation in order to hear the views, concerns, and hopes of people in Northern Ireland regarding a possible referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. We are keen to hear from as many people as possible, from all shades of opinion, so we encourage individuals and organisations in Northern Ireland’s various communities and regions to share our survey with colleagues, friends, and neighbours. Consultation responses will be reflected in the final report, but individual responses will be anonymous.

The survey asks how people feel when they hear talk about such a referendum, including hopes and fears they may hold. We also ask what questions people would want answers to before any referendum were ever to take place.

Respondents can also share their views on some of the particular questions being addressed by the Working Group. Many vitally important aspects of the process of a referendum have never been thought through, so this really matters. Who, for example, would be able to vote in a referendum, and what would be the rules of the campaign? What would be the process of deciding whether to call a referendum? Would the design of a united Ireland be worked out before a referendum or left till afterwards – and who would do this? Would unionists seek to develop a better ‘offer’ for Northern Ireland if voters opted to stay in the UK?

Answering our questions requires no prior expertise. We hope people from all walks of life in Northern Ireland will want to give us their thoughts on them. You can access the online survey here. The survey will be open till 2 September. The Working Group plans to release its interim report in October 2020, with a final report following in early 2021.

Dr Alan Renwick is Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit at University College London. He is an expert on referendums around the world, and convenor of the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland.

Conor Kelly is the Working Group’s Research Assistant, based at the Constitution Unit.

Charlotte Kincaid is the Constitution Unit’s Impact Research Fellow and Impact and Public Engagement Officer for the Working Group.

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