In addressing the existential core of politics north and south in Ireland, a working group of academics has laboured long on grappling with the issues on Referendums on Irish unity and delivered a modest proposal in the form of an “interim report”. But unlike Swift’s biting satire, theirs is an impeccably rational approach to procedural issues and the broad context for holding twin if not quite simultaneous referendums.
They recommend as best option a model of what unity would look like – Dublin’s prime responsibility – and a closely coordinated plan for conducting the referendums to be presented in advance – crucially a joint British-Irish obligation. So far, so good. But the political context throughout these islands is highly volatile. The hitherto obsessively introverted issue of Irish unity has been transformed by the external twin hammer blows of Brexit and Covid and the half external issue of the future of the British Union. If demand for a border poll looked like peaking at around 50% the prospect of unity could come unsettlingly quick and begin to dominate the politics of the Oireachtas and the Assembly for at least a full term.
If the group were to be taken as proxies for the three governments and many more parties, the process would be carried out very smoothly indeed. But this the easy bit. Like soldiers looking gingerly over a trench parapet expecting a hail of gunfire, the working party are now inviting responses. The politics are certain to be more contentious than the report and may well upset some of its recommendations.
Procedures for the vote are a lot easier to agree on than the shape and substance of unity. On the latter the report throws out multiple choices. Despite the obvious difficulties of prescribing, it is a pity they are quite so numerous.
The Northern referendum should embrace two choices in one question. The wording will be crucial. Will it refer baldly to a government paper where the terms are set out and distributed to every household as happened in the 1998 referendum; or spelt out on the ballot paper itself? In 98 the public had no difficulty in deciding. But wherever the choice is described, there is an important distinction to be made between the traditional unionist concept of the Union emphasising British sovereignty which tends to alienate nationalists and the embracing terms of the reformed Union under the GFA which enjoys cross community appeal.
The report affirms the 50%+ 1 threshold for the referendums and rightly puts paid to unionist musings about a super majority consistent with cross community voting in the Assembly. However it’s disappointing that the working party did not exploit their three centred objectivity to come closer to recommending criteria for calling a Northern referendum. If they can’t, who can? As the Secretary of State in this capacity is obliged to be neutral about the outcome, would the trigger be pulled around the 50% threshold? Over what period of time and how many polls? Independent or commissioned by the UK government? The questions being a simple yes or no, or detailed and nuanced as in the political attitudes section of the Northern Ireland Life and Times surveys?
Public confidence in opinion polls and British ministers are at a low ebb and yet the Secretary of State’s discretion is opaque and near absolute. It will be very difficult to maintain it. Better that the legal position is understood to mean that he will act on compelling advice from the Assembly, voting on a simple majority on the basis of clear manifesto commitments in favour of unity within a specified time scale. Admittedly this is what the GFA system tried to avoid by detaching the question from an Assembly ideally preoccupied with making power sharing work. But it reflects the compelling political realities of today. Creating vital transparency, It would also mirror the necessary process in the Dail and enable parallel debates to take place.
The report seems to imply the neutrality of the United Kingdom government in the campaign and run up. This is not necessarily so. The legal obligation to facilitate the process with strict impartiality does not rule out GB parties campaigning for either desired result. Although they have no role in deciding Irish unity they have powerful interests in the future of the UK. GB parties have held different formal positions on Irish unity since partition. Why should they abandon them at a possible point of decision?
The formal campaign period would need to prescribed in synch north and south and indeed UK wide. But campaigning in various forms will go on for years. When has it ever stopped? I see no likelihood of an agreement to impose purdah other than in the narrowest sense of specifically banning financial incentives from either government which would immediately recall the rampant bribery of the politics that created the Unions of 1707 and 1801.
Unitary or federal state? The policies for a model of unity strongly resemble the existing reform agenda within NI, suggesting that a federal Ireland might be preferable. Debate on change consequent on unity is constant within the North, but is much less so within the present Republic where for instance an NHS on the UK model would involve significant change. A federal state is accommodated in the design of the GFA, would be easier to implement and would preserve a distinct role for unionists. All Ireland policy reform on the health service and other matters would not be precluded.
The reports hints that violence or the threat of violence should not frustrate the implementation of either result in a northern referendum. This is an important principle for all parties specifically to assert in advance of the referendums, consistent with the GFA principle of “exclusively peaceful means” for conducting politics. However discreet but comprehensive preparations should be made by the two governments with UKG taking prime responsibility to counter the possibility of serious disruption. Almost certainly though, there will be no repetition of events from 1912 to 1922. On the other hand, if anxiety was raised over the possibility of violence in the event of a hard Brexit border, would the threat be any less at the prospect of no constitutional border at all? And where are the ideas for countering a formal or informal unionist boycott?
Worryingly no consideration has been given on the impact of a change of sovereignty on tackling the legacy of the Troubles. This is unlikely to have been settled within the decade.
Supporters of unity could probably afford to lose a referendum in each jurisdiction unless the unity vote was derisory. Principles for holding a second series at a later date should be considered and should surely differ from the first.
Possible scenarios littered with elephant traps are many more than are discussed here. To achieve some sort of coherence for political parties bitterly divided on the issue and two sovereign governments, the Working Group has set clear principles of procedure and standards of political conduct. This is not a negligible achievement. But it is not even the end of the beginning. The really difficult stage begins when they receive the responses to their modest proposal.
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