The mechanics of a unification referendum need attention

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

An independent group of academics has just published a report on how any future referendums on the question of Irish unification would best be designed and conducted. The group, which I chair, has no view on whether such referendums – or unification itself – should happen. It just looks at the mechanics of the process. But that’s vital in itself – if referendums happen, they need for everyone’s sake to be run fairly and smoothly. The conclusions set out in the report are provisional, and the group is keen now to get feedback on them.

Some might be surprised that an academic group is tackling such a contentious subject. But for many the debate on this issue is already happening, and it’s important that it should be well informed. A referendum on unification could take place. It’s neither imminent nor inevitable – opinion polls currently show a majority against unification, and no one knows how views might evolve in the wake of Brexit and Covid. But the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement requires the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to call a vote if a majority for unification looks likely.
You might think the Agreement would also set out the process for such a vote. But while it lays down some key parameters, it leaves much unspecified. And no one has ever filled in the gaps.

Referendums on this issue would not be straightforward, so would need to be planned for. One of the group’s central conclusions is that such votes should only be held with a clear plan for what follows. This plan would need to be agreed by the British and Irish governments – consulting closely with elected representatives, civic groups, and members of the public – by the time any referendums were called.

The 1998 Agreement is clear that unification can’t happen without a referendum vote for it in Northern Ireland. We conclude that a referendum would be needed in the Republic of Ireland as well. In each case, a simple majority of 50% + 1 of the votes cast would decide the matter. That’s clear from the Agreement, and the only approach that treats the two options equally.

While the basic sovereignty question is decided by simple majority, the wider ethos of the Agreement seeks consensus so far as possible. Upholding that ethos – for example, in discussions around the design of the referendum process or the form of a united Ireland – should also be a key aim.
The Agreement doesn’t say how the Secretary of State should gauge whether a majority for unification looks likely. There are multiple possible sources of evidence, including elections, opinion polls, surveys, and any vote on the issue in the Assembly. The Secretary of State would have to take all relevant evidence into account. Acting honestly and impartially here – and being seen to do so – is essential to maintain trust and credibility.

The Agreement is also silent on whether referendums should come before the form of a united Ireland has been worked out, or afterwards. There are strengths and weaknesses in both approaches, and no ideal path. We set out three feasible routes that we think deserve further attention, which between them cover both those broad approaches.

The rules for conducting referendum campaigns need serious attention too. The existing laws in both the UK and Ireland are badly outmoded, failing to reflect the shift of campaigning online in recent years. Updates are urgently needed before any referendum – but especially before one on a question as momentous as unification.

We’d like to hear from anyone with thoughts on our provisional findings. Responses will shape our final report, which we hope to publish in the spring. You can read our current report and find out how to respond here.

Read the full report here