This episode of 'UCL Uncovering Politics' looks at referendums on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland. Could they happen? If so, how would they best be designed and conducted?
The future of the Union here in the UK – that is, the union of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland – is very much in the news. In Scotland, many opinion polls over the past year (though not so much over the last few months) have suggested majority support for independence, and political parties that want another referendum on the issue secured a majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament elections last month. In Wales, support for independence seems to have grown, though still at a far lower level. And in Northern Ireland too, there has been a rise in talk of a referendum – a referendum, that is, on whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or become part of a united Ireland.
In this episode we’re going to focus on Northern Ireland. If there were a referendum on the constitutional question there, how would it best be designed and conducted? Who would get to vote? What would the question on the ballot paper be? Would there need to be a referendum in the Republic of Ireland as well? Who would work out designs for a united Ireland? Would they do so before a referendum, or only afterwards, in the event that the vote went in favour of unification?
It turns out that many of these questions haven’t previously been answered. Indeed, many haven’t been thought about very much. A landmark agreement was reached in 1998 between the British and Irish governments and most of the political parties in Northern Ireland – an agreement known variously as either the Belfast Agreement or the Good Friday Agreement. That brought an end to a quarter century of violent conflict in Northern Ireland and led to the creation of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the current arrangements for power-sharing government. It also included some provisions for a possible future referendum. But it left many questions unanswered.
Well now the Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland has published a major report that seeks to fill that gap. Comprising twelve academics from six universities, including Dr Alan Renwick and Professor Robert Hazell of the Constitution Unit, the group – which is impartial as to whether there should be a referendum or what the outcome should be if there is one – has looked into all the questions I just raised, and many more. It finds that referendums on this topic may be required in the coming years, but would carry significant risks. Conducting them well would be vitally important. And careful thought is needed as to what that would mean.
Host: Dr Alan Renwick
Professor Katy Hayward
Dr David Kenny
Dr Etain Tannam
Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland (report)